SYRIAN forces resumed their bombardment of the western city of Homs with tank and mortar fire yesterday as troops advanced on a northern rebel stronghold, leaving ten civilians and four soldiers dead.
With the year-long bloodshed showing no signs of abating, the United Nations–Arab League peace envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, flew to Moscow in a bid to secure Russian support for his efforts to bring about a ceasefire and open dialogue.
While western and Arab states are calling for president Bashar al-Assad to stand down first, Russia is putting the onus on the armed rebels and their foreign supporters to end a year-long uprising, saying its long-time ally Syria was ready for talks.
“Russia sees an immediate end of violence in Syria as a priority,” the Kremlin said yesterday, a day ahead of Annan’s meeting with outgoing president Dmitry Medvedev.
“... the key task is to convince the Syrian opposition to sit down at the negotiation table with the authorities and reach a peaceful resolution of the crisis,” it added.
On the ground, however, the idea of a negotiated peace seemed more remote than ever, with clashes reported in numerous parts of Syria.
Four died in Homs, the centre of the anti-Assad revolt, as the central city suffered another day of what activists said was indiscriminate gunfire and shelling on residential areas.
“The shelling started like it does every morning, for no reason. They are using mortar and tank fire on many neighbourhoods of old Homs,” said an activist in the city’s Bab Sbaa district.
He confirmed most residents had fled to safer parts of the city and said many were trying to escape Homs altogether.
Syrian troops have repeatedly targeted Homs, Syria’s third largest city, and said last month they had regained the one-time rebel stronghold. But a sharp rise in violence last week suggests they are struggling to maintain control.
However, the Homs activist, who declined to be named for fear of reprisals, suggested the opposition Free Syrian Army was also incapable of re-establishing its authority.
“The Free Syrian Army had been in Bab Sbaa when the army started shelling the area four days ago and they weren’t able to block the army raids because they were getting hit by mortars at the same time that armoured vehicles were coming in,” he said.
“We only have a few rebels here left, there is nothing they can do,” he added.
Independent verification of the reports is impossible as Syrian authorities have barred access to foreign journalists and human rights workers.
Further to the north, security forces killed at least one person and wounded dozens more in raids on Saraqib, in Idlib province which borders Turkey, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of contacts in Syria.
“There are dozens of tanks and armoured vehicles storming Saraqib now and there is heavy artillery fire,” an activist called Manhal said via Skype. “A portion of the rebels have made a strategic retreat, but there are rebel forces still inside, and about a third of residents have fled the town,” he added. The Observatory later said around 60 per cent of the town’s inhabitants had left Saraqib.
Mortars and heavy artillery fire also hit the city of Qusair, in Homs province, reportedly killing three civilians, while in the southern province of Deraa, birthplace of the revolt, the Observatory said a man was shot dead at a checkpoint in an area where a soldier had been gunned down earlier. Three other soldiers were killed in an attack in the north-eastern province of Hasaka, the spokesman added.