Syrian activists: 200 dead in government assault

By BASSEM MROUE | February 4, 2012 | 2:05 AM EST

In this citizen journalism image provided by the Local Coordination Committees in Syria and released Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012, an anti-Syrian regime protester, holds a poster in Arabic that reads, "to the Syrian freedom soldiers, our hearts are bases for you," as he walks during a demonstration in Idlib Province, north Syria. Russia's deputy defense minister says Moscow will not stop arms sales to Syria. Russian state news agencies quoted Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov on Thursday as saying Russia is not violating any international obligations. (AP Photo/Local Coordination Committees in Syria) THE ASSOCIATED PRESS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS HANDOUT PHOTO

BEIRUT (AP) — In a barrage of mortar shells, Syrian forces killed 200 people and wounded hundreds in Homs in an offensive that appears to be the bloodiest episode in the nearly 11-month-old uprising, activists said Saturday.

The assault in Homs, which has been one of the main flashpoints of opposition during the uprising, comes as the U.N. Security Council prepares to vote on a draft resolution backing an Arab call for President Bashar Assad to give up power.

Telephone calls to Homs were not going through, but residents of nearby areas described a hellish night of 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. Syrian TV said the reports were part of a "hysterical campaign of incitement by the armed groups" against Syria, meant to be exploited at the Security Council.

It claimed 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.

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.

"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 is known to shelter a large number of army defectors known as the Free Syrian Army.

The LCC called on residents of Homs and surrounding areas to support the people of Khaldiyeh and nearby Bayada by donating blood and housing families fleeing from the bombing.

It called for sit-ins in front of all Syrian embassies and consulates in capitals across the world.

In Kuwait, demonstrators stormed into the Syrian Embassy compound on Saturday, breaking windows and hoisting the flag of the opposition, witnesses there said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

They said there were no serious injuries at the embassy, where protesters ripped down the Syrian flag. Police later cleared the area and blocked roads.

There was also reports of protesters storming the Syrian Embassy in Cairo and starting a fire.

Earlier on Friday, deadly clashes erupted between government troops and rebels in suburbs of the Syrian capital and villages in the south, sparking fighting that killed at least 23 people, including nine soldiers, activists said.

Assad is trying to crush the revolt with a sweeping crackdown that has so far claimed thousands of lives, but neither the government nor the protesters are backing down and clashes between the military and an increasingly bold and armed opposition has meant many parts of the country have seen relentless violence.

The U.N. Security Council will meet Saturday morning to take up a much-negotiated resolution on Syria, said a diplomat for a Western nation that sits on the council.

The diplomat spoke Friday on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be quoted by the media.

The move toward a vote came after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke by telephone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in an effort to overcome Russian opposition to any statement that explicitly calls for regime change or a military intervention in Syria.

The U.S. and its partners have ruled out military action but want the global body to endorse an Arab League plan that calls on Assad to hand power over to Syria's vice president.

Russia's deputy foreign minister, Gennady Gatilov, said Friday that Moscow could not support the resolution in its current form. But he expressed optimism that an agreement could be reached, according to state news agency RIA Novosti.

Assad's regime has been intensifying an assault against army defectors and protesters. The U.N. said weeks ago that more than 5,400 people have been killed in violence since March. Hundreds more have been killed since that tally was announced.


AP writers Elizabeth A. Kennedy in Beirut, Anita Snow at the United Nations and Hussein al-Qatari in Kuwait City contributed to this report.