Fears grow that Syrian president’s troops are about to storm rebel city

FRANCE called on world powers to “save the Syrian people” yesterday as it joined the United States and Britain in raising the alarm that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces may be about to storm the rebel stronghold of Homs.

In Damascus, the government denied any crackdown, while accusing its opponents of taking up arms and warning the rebels’ supporters in the West that Syria could count on Russia, China and others to oppose any foreign intervention in its affairs.

In Homs, a pro-democracy activist said there was no clear sign of a troop build-up that other campaigners had reported around the city on Friday.

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Opposition groups have called for businesses and labour not to work today, the first day of the working week in Syria, in what they have called a “Strike for Dignity”.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition website, said 12 people were killed across the country yesterday plus a man who died of his wounds and three bodies returned to families, whom it said had died of torture.

France is extremely concerned about information of a massive military operation being prepared by Syrian security authorities against the city of Homs,” French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said, echoing concerns raised in Washington, London and neighbouring Turkey.

“France warns the Syrian government and will hold the Syrian authorities responsible for any action against the population.

“The entire international community must mobilise itself to save the Syrian people.”

On Friday, a US State Department spokeswoman said: “In places like Homs we have a huge number of reports that they are preparing something large-scale. They are not going to be able to hide who’s responsible if there is a major assault on the weekend.”

Syria rejected that characterisation of events. “There is no policy of crackdown,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdesi said.

“The Syrian forces are there to protect civilians and maintain law and order that is breached by those who are carrying arms against the state.”

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The official Syrian news agency SANA said the so-called Brics group of developing economic powers – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – “reiterated its absolute rejection to any interference in Syrian affairs”.

The UN Security Council has been the forum for sharp divisions over Syria between the western powers on the one hand and Russia and China on the other. Such differences, and Syria’s pivotal position at the heart of a web of regional conflicts, mean few see much possibility for the kind of western military action seen this year in Libya.