Syrian forces hammered restive neighborhoods in the city of Homs for hours with mortars and artillery Saturday, sending terrified residents fleeing into basements and killing more than 200 people in what appeared to be the bloodiest episode of the nearly 11-month-old uprising, activists said.
The government denied the assault. It said the reports are part of a “hysterical campaign” of incitement by armed groups against Syria, meant to be exploited at the U.N. Security Council as it prepares to vote on a draft resolution backing an Arab call for President Bashar Assad to give up power.
The new bloodshed added new heat to last-minute negotiations as Western and Arab countries tried to win Russian support for the resolution. A vote was scheduled at the Security Council for Saturday, but so far Russia, a strong ally of Syria, was signaling it would veto any call for Assad's removal.
In a blunt warning to Washington, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Saturday that if the resolution is put to a vote without taking Russia's opinion into account it will only lead to “another scandal” at the Security Council.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe countered that “those who block the adoption of such a resolution are taking a grave historical responsibility” in light of the Homs bloodshed, which he called a “crime against humanity.”
Tunisia decided to expel Syria's ambassador in response to the “bloody massacre” in Homs and no longer recognizes the Assad regime, the president's office said in a statement. Angry Syrians stormed their embassies in Berlin, London, Athens, Cairo and Kuwait city, clashing with guards and police and — in Cairo — setting fire to part of the embassy.
In Homs, thousands turned out for a funeral ceremony in a city park for some of the victims of the bombardment the night before, hours after the assault eased. Large protests were reported across the country in solidarity with residents of the city.
Outside Damascus, 12 people were killed when security forces in the suburb of Daraya opened fire on a procession for victims of a shooting in the area a day earlier, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Three others were killed in violence in other Damascus suburbs. Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, reported 22 killed across Syria on Saturday.
There were signs that the bombardment in Homs, Syria's third largest city, was in response to moves by army defectors to solidify control in several neighborhoods. There were reports that defectors set up new checkpoints in several areas, and two Homs activists said defectors attacked a military checkpoint in the Khaldiyeh district Thursday night, capturing 17 soldiers. The activists spoke on condition of anonymity to protect themselves from retaliation.
If defector activity was the spark, the assault signals a new willingness by the regime to unleash more devastating force against the dissidents. The defectors, part of a force called the Free Syrian Army, have grown increasingly bold in attacks on the military and attempts to take overt control in pro-opposition areas.
Khaldiyeh, a mainly Sunni neighborhood in the mixed city, took the brunt of the assault. Residents described a hellish night of ceaseless shelling that sent them fleeing to lower floors and basements of buildings.
“We were sitting at home and the mortars just started slamming into buildings around us,” said Mohammad, a Khaldiyeh resident. “There was nothing that prompted it, not even protests ... people are terrified today,” he added by telephone.
Mohammad, who like other Syrians in Homs declined to be further identified, said the shelling started shortly before midnight and lasted until the early morning hours Saturday. He said residents were out Saturday inspecting the damage, looking for relatives. “It's a catastrophe, no other way to describe it.”
Online video by activists showed chaotic scenes in a makeshift clinic set up in what appeared to be a Khaldiyeh mosque, the room filled with wounded men with gashes and broken limbs being bandaged. Several dead bodies were shown. In another video, fire ravaged a house that had been shelled, as people poured water on the blaze.
The videos could not be independently verified.
Residents said most shelling came from a military installation west of Khaldiyeh and Alawite-dominated neighborhoods to the east. Syria's Alawite minority, who belong to an offshoot of Shiite Islam, forms the backbone of Assad's regime and the military leadership.
The Free Syrian Army later claimed it fired on the military installation with rocket-propelled grenades in retaliation. The claim could not be confirmed.
The government denied the Homs bombardment and said corpses shown in videos were of people kidnapped by “terrorists” who filmed them to portray them as victims of 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. More than half of the deaths — about 140 — were in Khaldiyeh, they said.
The Syrian National Council, Syria's main opposition group, put the toll at more than 220.
“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.
Ammar, a resident of the Bab Tadmur district of Homs, said the death toll exceeded 330.
“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?”
Homs is a hotbed of dissent to Assad's regime and is known to shelter a large number of army defectors. Despite near daily regime raids and fighting, many parts of it remain outside of government control.
Assad has tried to crush the revolt with a sweeping crackdown since March. But neither the government nor the protesters are backing down. The opposition, which began with peaceful protests, has turned more and more to arms, and the military and security forces have responded with progressively greater force.
But the past weeks suggest the regime is moving to qualitiatively more powerful assaults. Last week, the military launched a heavy offensive in the suburbs east of Damascus after dissidents showed greater control there. Three days of fighting saw some of the highest daily death tolls of the uprising, until the regime appeared to silence the dissidents for now.
The U.N. said in December that that more than 5,400 people have been killed since March, but it has been unable to update its count for weeks due to the chaos. Hundreds more have been killed since that tally was announced.
With a vote planned Saturday, diplomats tried to the last minute to avert a Russian veto of the Syria resolution. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with Russia's Lavrov on the sidelines of a security conference in Berlin.
Asked afterward about progress, Clinton said only, “We're working on it.”
Soon after the talks, Russia's Foreign Ministry announced Lavrov and the head of foreign intelligence would head to Damascus on Tuesday to meet with Assad. It did not give a reason for visit.
Earlier in the day, Lavrov said the latest version of the resolution resolves "quite a number of things which were important to us." But, he said, it makes too few demands of anti-Assad armed groups, and Moscow remains concerned about whether it prejudges the outcome of a national dialogue among political forces in Syria that it is trying, with little success, to arrange.
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 his vice president.