Hundreds of people were killed this weekend by shelling in the Syrian flashpoint city of Homs, in the bloodiest episode yet in the nearly year-old revolt against President Bashar Assad.
As news of the violence spread on Saturday, angry crowds of Syrians stormed their country’s embassies in Cairo, London, Berlin and Kuwait and protested in other cities. Death tolls cited by activists and opposition groups ranged from 237 to 260, making the Homs attack one of the deadliest incidents in the Arab revolutions that have swept the Middle East.
Meanwhile, an Egyptian newspaper reported that Syria suffered its highest-level army defection yet, as the commander of military intelligence’s Palestinian section reportedly quit ranks to join the opposition Free Syrian Army.
Egypt’s independent Al-Masry Al-Youm
newspaper reported last week that Maj.-Gen. Muhammad Khalouf had deserted with 300 of his men and clashed with regime loyalists near Damascus international airport.
The report remains unconfirmed, but Khalouf’s name did appear on a Syrian government list of wanted names obtained by Jane’s Defence Weekly, a British security magazine.
“Besides his high rank, he was senior in the ruling Ba’ath party and has all the information regarding Assad’s support and hosting of Palestinian [militant] groups,” Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Tawfik Tirawi, a former Palestinian Authority intelligence chief, told Jane’s. “He was one of the closest to Assad and his defection will encourage those hesitating to follow his steps.”
A top-level Hamas security source who recently left Syria told the weekly, “Gen. Khalouf,who is Sunni, could provide the Free Syrian Army with a lot of intelligence that will enhance and sharpen its fighting tactics against Assad’s loyal security services.”
On the ground in Homs, residents said Syrian forces began shelling the Khalidiya neighborhood around 8 p.m. Friday using artillery and mortars. They said at least 36 houses were completely destroyed with families inside.
“We were sitting inside our house when we started hearing the shelling. We felt shells were falling on our heads,” one resident said.
“The morning has come and we have discovered more bodies, bodies are on the streets,” he said. “Some are still under the rubble.
Our movement is better but there is little we can do without ambulances and other things.”
An activist in the neighborhood said residents were using primitive tools to rescue people.
They feared many were buried under rubble.
“We are not getting any help, there are no ambulances or anything. We are removing the people with our own hands,” he said. There were only two field hospitals treating the wounded and each one had a capacity to deal with 30 people, but he estimated the total number of wounded at 500.
“We have dug out at least 100 bodies so far; they are placed in the two mosques,” he said.
A third Khalidiya resident – speaking by telephone with wailing and cries of “Allah akbar” audible in the background – said at least 40 corpses had been retrieved from streets and damaged buildings.
Video footage on the Internet showed at least eight bodies assembled in a room, one of them with the top half of its head blown off. A voice on the video said the bombardment was continuing as the footage was filmed.
Syria denied shelling Homs and said Internet video of corpses was staged. The official Syrian account was disregarded across the globe, where international condemnation was thunderous and the US expressed “disgust”
at a UN Security Council veto of a draft resolution calling for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down.
It was not immediately clear what had prompted Syrian forces to launch such an intense bombardment, just as diplomats at the Security Council were discussing the Arab League-backed resolution.
Syria’s state news agency SANA accused rebels of killing people and presenting them as casualties for propaganda purposes before the UN vote. “The corpses displayed by some channels of incitement are martyrs, citizens kidnapped, killed and photographed by armed terrorist groups as if they are victims of the supposed shelling,” it quoted a “media source” as saying.
In Cairo on Saturday, a crowd stormed the Syrian Embassy, smashing furniture and setting fire to parts of the building in protest over the Homs bloodshed. The gate of the embassy was broken and furniture was smashed on the second floor of the building.
In London, 150 people hurled stones at the Syrian Embassy, smashing windows and shouting slogans. Police said five men were arrested after breaking into the building and another held for assaulting police. Kuwait’s KUNA news agency said Syrians broke into the Assad government’s mission there at dawn, tore down the flag and injured several security guards.
Demonstrators burst into the embassy in Berlin, destroying portraits of Assad and his father.
Rami Abdulrahman, head of the Britishbased Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told Reuters that the death toll in Homs had reached 237, with 60 people still missing. His group said 21 other people were also killed in other parts of Syria on Saturday, including 12 in a funeral procession in an outlying district of Damascus.
The opposition Syrian National Council said 260 civilians were killed, describing it as “one of the most horrific massacres since the beginning of the uprising in Syria.”
In the cities of Hama and Idlib, activists said hundreds of people took to the streets in solidarity.
In Idlib, they chanted: “Homs is bombarded, and you are still sleeping?”