Syrian forces unleashed a barrage of mortars and artillery on the battered city of Homs on Saturday,killing more than 200 people in what appears to be the bloodiest episode in the nearly 11-month-old uprising,activists said.
The government denied the assault,saying the reports are part of a “hysterical campaign” of incitement by armed groups against Syria,meant to be exploited at the Security Council as it prepares to vote on a draft resolution backing an Arab call for President Bashar Assad to give up power.
With the violence in Syria growing increasingly chaotic,diplomatic efforts to find a solution to the crisis have gained pace. But Russia,a strong ally of Syria,signaled Saturday it would oppose any resolution calling for a political transition in the country and had submitted its own amendments to the Western-backed draft.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned Washington that any attempt to put a resolution to vote without taking Russia’s opinion into account will only lead to “another scandal” at the Security Council. He spoke in an interview broadcast Saturday on Russian state television Rossiya.
Meanwhile,telephone calls to Khaldiyeh,the hardest hit district in Homs,were not going through,but residents of nearby areas described a hellish night of ceaseless shelling.
“Homs is on fire,” said one opposition activist in a quieter area near the city,who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisal.
“All sides are attacking each other and the number of casualties is more than anyone can count,” he said.
The government denied the assault and said that corpses shown in amateur videos posted online bodies that activists said were victims of the assault were purportedly of people kidnapped by “terrorist armed groups” who filmed them to portray them as victims of the alleged shelling.
One video showed a chaotic scene as men,with various wounds and gashes,were being tended to or were praying in what appeared to be a makeshift clinic in Khaldiyeh. Another showed a fire ravage a house in the district,as people desperately tried to put out the blaze with water.
Two main opposition groups,the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees,said the death toll in Homs was more than 200 people and included women and children in mortar shelling that began late Friday.
More than half of the killings about 140 were reported in the Khaldiyeh neighborhood,they said. “This is the worst attack of the uprising,since the uprising began in March until now,” said Rami Abdul-Rahman,the head of the Observatory,which tracks violence through contacts on the ground.
The reports could not be independently confirmed. It was not immediately clear what precipitated the attack,but there have been reports that army defectors set up checkpoints in the area and were trying to consolidate control.
Unconfirmed reports also said gunmen,possibly army defectors,had attacked a military checkpoint in Khaldiyeh,captured 17 of its members,prompting intense clashes with the military.
Homs,Syria’s third largest city,is a hotbed of dissent to Assad’s regime and is known to shelter a large number of army defectors known as the Free Syrian Army. The city has seen several crackdowns by security forces but many parts of it remain outside of government control.
Ammar,a resident of the Bab Tadmur district of Homs,said the real death toll exceeded 330 people,and hundreds of others were wounded. He did not elaborate.
“A few more nights like this one and Homs will be erased from the map,” said the distraught man by telephone. “We are being massacred,what is the Security Council still waiting for?” he asked.