Syrian forces kill at least 20 in assault on Homs

Violent crackdown against anti-Assad demonstrators comes as Arab League chief Elaraby announces weekend visit to Damascus.

Syria rallies 311 R (photo credit: REUTERS)
Syria rallies 311 R
(photo credit: REUTERS)
AMMAN - Syrian forces backed by tanks killed at least 20 civilians in the city of Homs on Wednesday in one of the fiercest military assaults on urban centers to crush six months of pro-democracy protests, activists and residents said.
Residents said the assault concentrated on old districts that have seen daily street demonstrations demanding the removal of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
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It came as the Arab League said that its secretary general will visit Syria on Saturday and Arab foreign ministers will meet next week to convey concerns over the crackdown.
"Military helicopters are flying overhead and snipers are shooting from rooftops at anything. Tank machine gun fire is coming at us like rain," a resident of the Bab Sbaaa district who did not want to be further identified told Reuters by satellite phone.
Human rights campaigners say Syria's ruling hierarchy has stepped up efforts to crush demonstrations in recent weeks, including more frequent military raids, targeted assassinations of protest leaders and the arrest of thousands of Syrians.
Assad, 45, has repeatedly said he is facing a foreign conspiracy to divide Syria. The authorities blame what they describe as terrorists for the bloodshed, and say 500 police and soldiers have been killed, with the military deployed to protect the public.
The official state news agency said that "armed terrorist groups" killed eight security personnel in Homs on Wednesday and "assaulted civilians and security forces and attacked public and private property".
"Specialized security organs dealt with these terrorist groups and a clash with them occurred which resulted in five security forces wounded and the killing of five armed men wanted for murder and theft and kidnapping, as well as the arrest of several of them," the agency said.
Homs, hometown of Assad's wife Asma, is on the main northern highway 165 km (100 miles) from Damascus. Old districts such as Bab Sbaa, Bab Dreib and Bab Hut have seen the biggest daily protests to demand that Assad step down. Their maze-like streets help protesters escape security forces, activists and residents said.
Residents of the nearby town of Rastan posted a YouTube video apparently showing 12 defecting soldiers in military fatigues appearing from a balcony of a commercial building to ecstatic cheers and applause of protesters.
"We will be one hand to bring down Bashar and every traitor," said one soldier from a microphone in the video.
Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby had originally been expected to travel to Damascus on Wednesday. Arab diplomats said the visit was delayed at Syria's request.
An Arab diplomatic source said Syrian authorities delayed the visit after Elaraby met Syrian opposition members and because of a leaked Qatari proposal for possible demands that Arab states would make to Assad. The Qatari proposal had not yet been adopted, the source said.
Louay Hussein, a prominent opposition figure, told Reuters that the Arab League initiative had not stopped the attack on Homs from being "more random and severely repressive than what we had seen before", leading to more calls for armed resistance.
He pointed to another YouTube video purportedly filmed in Homs this week, which showed several soldiers in uniform next to light tank shooting a man lying on the street several times over. One soldier congratulates another for continuing to fire at the body, saying: "You are truly a beast".
A local group, the Homs City Neighborhoods Union, said most telephone lines and Internet connections with Homs had been cut.
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