Death toll rises as country awaits outcome of referendum on a new constitution
Syrian government troops have fired heavy barrages of artillery and rockets on Monday into districts across Homs, where rebels have been holding out through weeks of bombardment, opposition activists said.
“Intense shelling started on Khalidiya, Ashira, Bayada, Baba Amr and the old city at dawn,” activist Muhammad al-Homsi told Reuters from Homs.
“The army is firing from the main thoroughfares deep into alleyways and side streets. Initial reports indicate at least two people killed in the Souk area,” he said.
Syrians took part in the referendum on Sunday to clear the way for multi-party elections that could see Bashar al-Assad entrenched as president until 2028, in a vote widely dismissed by the opposition as a figleaf for reform.
Turnout appeared to be mixed across the country, with voter participation being noticeably higher in areas where Assad still has support, such as Damascus and the commercial hub of Aleppo.
Nationwide, more than 50 people have been killed each day for at least the past week, according to local activists and civilian journalists.
At least 59 civilians and soldiers were killed on Sunday. At least 12 civilians were killed in bombardment of the Baba Amr and al-Khalidiya districts of Homs, while three people were killed when security forces opened fire on a demonstration in Damascus, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The British-based observatory said 21 other civilians were killed elsewhere, while rebels forces killed 23 members of the security forces.
Officials in Damascus said voting was lower in unstable areas. The result of the referendum, to change the constitution and authorise political parties other than the Ba’ath party, appears to be a foregone conclusion, with most of those who turned out likely to vote yes.
The referendum is held up as a centrepiece of Assad’s reforms, which were drafted as a response to what has been a sustained challenge to the totalitarian state that he and his father before him have ruled for more than 40 years.
It would mean the Ba’ath party would no longer have a monopoly on political and social life in Syria. Opposition groups would, in law at least, be free to stand independently in future elections.
But a constitutional change limiting a president’s maximum term to 14 years would not be applied retrospectively, meaning Assad could still serve two more terms from the next election, likely to be held in 2014.
The referendum has been roundly dismissed by opposition groups and by the west, which insist Assad has lost all legitimacy. Turkey said the ongoing crackdown on dissent belied talk of reform. The White House described the referendum as meaningless. The German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, said it was a farce. “Sham votes cannot contribute to a solution of the crisis. Assad needs to put an end to the violence and clear the way for a political transition,” he said.
A Friends of Syria conference, which was attended by more than 70 states in Tunis over the weekend, denounced the vote as designed to create a veneer of change while the lethal assault on opposition groups continued unabated.
US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who was in Tunis, indicated that the US objection to the arming of those rebels who are in open revolt had not changed, despite the remarks of several congressmen. She said military intervention would be perilous. “I think there’s every possibility of a civil war,” she told the BBC. “Outside intervention would not prevent that. It would probably expedite it.
“We have a very dangerous set of actors in the region: al-Qaida, Hamas and those who are on our terrorist list claiming to support the opposition. You have many Syrians more worried about what could come next.”
Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister, also spoke against the idea: “I very much hope the US and other countries … do not try to set a military scenario in motion without sanction from the UN security council.” Russia and China have vetoed such security council approval.
A senior Hamas figure told the Associated Press that its leader, Khaled Mashaal, had moved from Syria to Qatar.
Efforts to evacuate the wounded from Baba Amr, including two western reporters and the bodies of two colleagues, have not succeeded, despite urgent pleas from Europe. The International Committee of the Red Cross has been trying since the deaths last Wednesday of Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin and French photographer Rémi Ochlik to get scores of wounded out of Syria to hospitals in Lebanon. Talks broke down several times over the weekend. Some observers said the delay was caused by a lack of trust. The Free Syrian Army was said to have rejected two ambulances sent into Baba Amr, partly because it could not guarantee where the wounded would be taken.
Kate Conroy, wife of injured photographer Paul Conroy, said that, with reluctance, she could appreciate the Foreign Office view that it was too difficult to provide an escort to help with his rescue. Nonetheless, she would like it “if somebody in that embassy was to say: ‘Forget protocol, I’m going to get them out.'”
Essential services have collapsed in rebel-held districts of Homs over a four-month siege that has trapped up to 20,000 people. Besieged neighbourhoods claim they are get electricity each day for only a few hours a day, and are desperately low on food and water.
Baba Amr, a hub for the Free Syrian Army, had largely been left to its own devices until an artillery assault began 24 days ago. It has since been reduced to a series of ghettos that regime forces have yet to enter, though local activists expect a ground assault at any time.
from Martin Chulov