Syrian forces killed more than 200 people in an assault on the city of Homs, activists said, the bloodiest day of an 11-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, ahead of a Saturday vote on a UN resolution calling for him to cede power.
The Arab League, Europe and the United States are trying to persuade Assad’s veto-wielding ally Russia to let the Security Council pass a resolution backing an Arab call for Assad to transfer powers to a deputy. Moscow said passing the resolution without amendments risked “taking sides in a civil war”.
Death tolls cited by activists and opposition groups ranged from 217 to 260, making the Homs attack the deadliest so far in Assad’s crackdown on protests and one of the bloodiest episodes in the “Arab Spring” of revolts that have swept the region.
Residents said Syrian forces began shelling the Khalidiya neighbourhood at around 8pm (1800 GMT) on Friday using artillery and mortars. They said at least 36 houses were completely destroyed with families inside. “We were sitting inside our house when we started hearing the shelling. We felt shells were falling on our heads,” said Waleed, a resident of Khalidiya.
“We have found more bodies,” he said, adding, “Some are still under the rubble.
An activist in the neighbourhood contacted by Reuters said residents were using primitive tools to rescue people. They feared many were buried under rubble.
“We are not getting any help, there are no ambulances or anything. We are removing the people with our own hands,” he said, adding there were only two field hospitals treating the wounded. Each one had a capacity to deal with 30 people, but he estimated the total number of wounded at 500.
“We have dug out at least 100 bodies so far, they are placed in the two mosques.”
Syria denied shelling the area and said internet video of corpses was staged. It is not possible to verify activist or state media reports as Syria restricts independent media access.
As news of the violence spread, crowds of Syrians stormed their country’s embassies in Cairo, London and Kuwait in protest, and rallied outside Syrian missions in Germany, Greece and the US.
It was not immediately clear what had prompted Syrian forces to launch such an intense bombardment, just as diplomats at the Security Council were discussing the draft resolution supporting the Arab League demand for Assad to give up powers. The Security Council was due meet at 1500 GMT. Russia’s foreign minister made clear Moscow would veto the resolution if it was presented without amendments it has demanded. “If they want another scandal for themselves in the Security Council, then we probably cannot stop them,” Itar-Tass news agency quoted Sergei Lavrov as saying in an interview.
Lavrov later told a security conference in Munich: “We are not saying that this resolution is hopeless.” Russia’s main objection was that the resolution contained measures against Assad, but not against armed groups opposing him.
“Unless you do it both ways, you are taking sides in a civil war,” Lavrov said.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the conference: “As a tyrant in Damascus brutalises his own people, America and Europe stand shoulder to shoulder. We are united, alongside the Arab League, in demanding an end to the bloodshed and a democratic future for Syria.”