Troops attack Sunni Muslim neighbourhoods from armoured vehicles and strike oil refinery pipeline, causing a major blast
Syrian forces have launched an offensive on Hama, firing on residential neighbourhoods from armoured vehicles and mobile anti-aircraft guns, opposition activists said.
Troops shelled Sunni Muslim neighbourhoods in Homs on the 13th day of their bombardment. The city has been at the forefront of the uprising against 42 years of rule by President Bashar al-Assad and his late father Hafez.
An explosion hit a major oil pipeline feeding a refinery in Homs, sending a large plume of smoke rising into the sky, according to witnesses. The blast hit the pipeline near a district being shelled by government troops, they said.
France said it had created a emergency fund for aid agencies looking to help the Syrian people. It will also propose a similar fund at an international level next week at a meeting in Tunisia to discuss the escalating crisis.
Paris had previously proposed “humanitarian corridors” with Syrian approval or with an international mandate for shipping food and medicine to alleviate civilian suffering.
Tanks deployed near the citadel of Hama were shelling the neighbourhoods of Faraya, Olailat, Bashoura and al-Hamidiya, and troops were advancing from the airport, opposition sources said.
Speaking by satellite phone an activist named Amar, said “landlines and mobile phone networks have been cut in the whole of Hama.” The Sunni city is notorious for the massacre of some 10,000 people when the present president’s father Hafez sent in troops to crush an uprising there in 1982.
Activists said no casualty reports were available from Hama, Syria’s fourth largest city, because of communications problems.
Assad’s determination to crush the revolt, regardless of widespread condemnation of his use of force against civilians, prompted Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia to prepare a new resolution at the UN in support of a peace plan forged at a meeting in Cairo on Sunday.
A resolution passed at the meeting urged Arabs to “provide all kinds of political and material support” to the opposition. This included arms transfers, Arab League diplomats told Reuters.
An Arab ambassador in Cairo said: “We will back the opposition financially and diplomatically in the beginning but if the killing by the regime continues, civilians must be helped to protect themselves. The resolution gives Arab states all options to protect the Syrian people.”
On Tuesday, the head of Egypt’s influential seat of Sunni Islamic learning, al-Azhar, called for bold Arab action against the Syrian government. He urged raising regional pressure on Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, that has dominated Syria for five decades.
Russia and China vetoed a Security Council resolution that backed an Arab League call for Assad to step aside and help end the bloodshed.
US president Barack Obama told Chinese vice-president Xi Jinping on Tuesday, that the US was disappointed with China’s veto, an administration official said.
Chinese vice-foreign minister Cui Tiankai said the Security Council needed to take a “very careful and very responsible attitude” to Syria, adding that if they were to “take the wrong steps, that could lead to even worse bloodshed”. Assad has dismissed his opponents as terrorists backed by enemy nations in a regional power-play and says he will introduce reforms on his own terms.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported 20 people killed across Syria on Tuesday, including opposition supporters, civilians, and five government soldiers shot in clashes with rebel fighters in Qalaat al-Madyaq town near Hama.
The government says at least 2,000 members of its military and security forces have died. The UN says government forces have killed several thousand civilians.
In Homs, the pro-opposition district of Baba Amro was struck by shelling on Wednesday, activists said. At least six people were killed there on Tuesday, taking the city’s estimated death toll above 400 since the assault began on 3 February.
An Arab League proposal that a joint Arab-UN peacekeeping mission be sent to Syria elicited a guarded response from western powers, who are wary of becoming bogged down militarily in Syria. It was rejected by the Assad government. Russia, Assad’s main ally and arms supplier, also showed little enthusiasm, saying it could not support a peacekeeping mission unless both sides stopped the violence first.
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