DAMASCUS: Syrian forces pressed a relentless assault on the protest city of Homs on Wednesday, with dozens of civilians reported killed, hours after President Bashar al-Assad said he was committed to ending the bloodshed.
The barrage of gunfire, mortars and shells was launched at daybreak and continued during the day. State television said a car bomb had ripped through the central city, killing and wounding civilians as well as security officers.
The blast hit the neighbourhood of Bayada, the television reported, blaming “armed terrorist gangs.” If confirmed, the attack would be the first of its kind in Homs.
It came as Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin insisted any outside intervention to stop the violence would be akin to behaving “like a bull in a china shop.”
But France and Britain dismissed Moscow’s efforts to end nearly 11 months of bloodshed in Syria and cast doubt on Assad’s claim that he was “fully committed” to resolving the crisis.
Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said at least 62 people were killed across the country on Wednesday, including 50 in Homs.
Among those killed in the beleaguered city were three entire families slain overnight by pro-regime thugs known as Shabiha, he said. They included at least three children aged five, seven and 15.
The most intense shelling was in Baba Amr, where at least 23 buildings were completely destroyed, including a home hit by a rocket that killed a little girl.
Activists in Homs said the widespread shelling was a clear bid to pave the way for a ground assault on Syria’s third city.
“Since dawn the shelling has been extremely intense and they are using rockets and mortars,” Omar Shaker, reached by satellite telephone from Beirut, told AFP.
“They have destroyed all infrastructure and bombed water tanks and electricity poles. The humanitarian situation is extremely dire and food is lacking.
“We are trying to set up a field hospital but we have no medical supplies.”
The shelling intensified as tanks were reportedly moving toward the city from Damascus, said Hadi Abdullah, another activist.
“We fear a new massacre,” he told AFP by satphone.
Ali Hazouri, a doctor in Baba Amr, said a field hospital had been hit and several physicians were wounded, some critically.
“One rescuer from the Red Cross had both legs blown off in the shelling,” he said. “We have shut down the hospital and are treating the wounded in their homes.”
Paris-based aid agency Doctors Without Borders accused the regime of persecuting medics who treat the wounded, as well as denying medical care to opponents.
As the regime forces tightened their grip, severing power, communications and other supplies, state media reported “terrorists” attacked Homs’ oil refinery.
The authorities frequently blame “terrorists” for attacks on infrastructure, while its opponents accuse the regime of carrying them out to punish centres of resistance.
The Observatory has reported several hundred civilians killed since the onslaught on Homs, a central junction city of 1.6 million inhabitants, was launched overnight Friday.
In southern Syria on Wednesday, troops used heavy gunfire after an army officer and 17 soldiers defected in the Daraa region, cradle of the uprising against Assad’s 11 years of iron-fisted rule.
Rights groups estimate more than 6,000 people have died in nearly a year of upheaval in the Middle East country, as Assad’s hardline regime seeks to snuff out the revolt that began in March with peaceful protests amid the Arab Spring.
Western and Arab efforts to address the violence have met resistance from Russia, whose foreign minister said after meeting Assad in Damascus on Tuesday that the Syrian leader was “fully committed” to ending the bloodshed.
Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov pointedly declined to say whether Moscow had asked Assad to go during their talks on Tuesday.
“Any outcome of national dialogue should be the result of agreement between the Syrians themselves and should be acceptable to all Syrians,” said Lavrov.
Putin issued a similar statement.
“Of course we condemn violence from whichever side it comes, but we must not behave like a bull in a china shop. We need to allow people to decide their own fate independently.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron said he had “very little confidence” in the Russian efforts, while French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Assad’s promises were manipulation and should not be believed.
Meanwhile, the European Union was making contingency plans in case it needs to evacuate EU citizens from Syria, while it also considers a ban on flights into and out of the country, senior officials said.
Russia, which along with China vetoed a UN resolution condemning the crackdown at the weekend, has staunchly stood by its last ally in the region, a key buyer of military hardware that hosts a strategic Russian naval base.
UN rights chief Navi Pillay said the failed vote “appears to have fuelled the Syrian government’s readiness to massacre its own people in a bid to crush dissent” as she called for international action to protect civilians.
Turkey said it was planning an international conference of regional players and world powers on solving the Syrian crisis “as soon as possible.”