Residents of besieged city say they are preparing for final onslaught as tanks columns further bolster regime positions
The bombardment of the city of Homs by the Syrian military continued unabated on Wednesday with at least 80 deaths in besieged enclaves, where residents say they are preparing for an imminent final onslaught.
Tank columns were on Tuesday seen streaming from Damascus towards Syria’s third city and are reported to have reinforced positions that have already been barraging the suburbs of Bab al-Amr and al-Khalideyah for almost three weeks.
The relentless assault has taken on a new dimension in the past seven days, with increasingly heavy artillery fired as attempts have been made to negotiate a daily ceasefire and open a humanitarian corridor to allow aid into the neighbourhoods cut off from the rest of the city.
Up to 60 of those reported killed in Homs on Wednesday were killed in an afternoon artillery barrage. Activists said some military defectors who have joined a rebel army were among the dead.
“This was in one part of the city only,” said one activist. “The shelling was with very heavy weapons. It was not mortars or rockets.”
Up to 20,000 residents of the besieged areas remain unable to leave amid desperate shortages of food and water. Global campaigning group Avaaz claimed seven of its activists were executed on Wednesday while trying to bring medical supplies into the city to treat residents wounded by the shelling.
Only a small number of wounded have been able to flee the district of Bab al-Amr since the shelling began 19 days ago; most to the hinterland surrounding Homs, which is also braced for a regime attack. The two besieged neighbourhoods now lie largely in ruin, activists and reporters on the ground said, with most buildings damaged by the shelling.
In the tract of land south of Homs towards Lebanon and north towards Turkey, a raging insurgency is seeking to bring an end to the four-decade rule of the Assad clan and the Ba’ath party regime that underpins its power.
Clashes have taken place daily since the summer in much of this area. In Idlib, regime forces were again engaged on Wednesday in running battles with defectors who comprise the ranks of a new guerilla force, the Free Syria Army.
Up to seven defectors were believed to have been killed, along with a similar number of security force members. Defections have become commonplace throughout the lower ranks of the Syrian military. However the nascent rebel army remains lightly armed and without an effective central control. In Homs and elsewhere, it is operating as a loosely aligned series of franchises.
Russia on Wednesday maintained its support for the Assad regime, claiming extremist elements within the Syrian opposition were just as responsible for the savage violence consuming parts of the country as the regime military.
The US, meanwhile, appeared to leave the door slightly ajar for the supply of military aid to Syria’s rebels, with White House officials suggesting new measures were being explored in the wake of the relentless regime crackdown that has killed more than 7,000 civilians and around 3,000 members of the security forces.
Assad has pledged to introduce constitutional reforms as soon as this weekend that would clear the way for multi-party rule in Syria. However opposition groups, along with western states, have insisted that the Syrian leader must leave power.
US officials had until recently been publicly opposed to arming an opposition that it sees as poorly defined and lacking discipline. However the alarming escalation in violence, which could spill to neighbouring states, has forced a reassessment. Veteran US congressman John McCain this week openly called for military assistance to be seriously considered.
The umbrella opposition group, the Syrian National Council said it was close to advocating military intervention. “We are really close to seeing this military intervention as the only solution,” SNC official Basma Kodami told a press conference in Paris. “There are two evils, military intervention or protracted civil war.”
from Martin Chulov