UN decries ‘appalling brutality’ as Homs assault continues

Dozens killed in protest hotbed; US weighs humanitarian aid, but expert says arms are needed.

By OREN KESSLER, REUTERS
February 10, 2012 01:41
Syrian soldiers bury their comrades in Damascus

Syrian soldiers funeral 390. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Syrian forces bombarded opposition-held neighborhoods of the city of Homs with rocket and mortar fire on Thursday, while divided world powers struggled to find a way to end nearly a year of bloodshed.

The United Nations chief condemned the ferocity of the government assault on the heart of a revolt against President Bashar Assad that appears to be getting bloodier by the day.

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“I fear that the appalling brutality we are witnessing in Homs, with heavy weapons firing into civilian neighborhoods, is a grim harbinger of things to come,” UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon said after briefing the Security Council in New York.

Activists and residents report hundreds of people killed over the past week as Assad’s forces try to stamp out opposition in Homs. As Thursday dawned, rocket and mortar fire rained down again on Baba Amro, Khalidiya and other districts.

Armored government reinforcements also poured into the city.

Any international move to bring in humanitarian aid could open a dangerous and complicated chapter in the crisis, with air drops seen as expensive and ineffective and any land routes open to attack from Syrian forces.

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David Schenker, director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the opposition Free Syrian Army should be provided with the means to defend itself.

“The president and administration are still very much against it, but I think the people of Syria have the right to defend themselves,” he said.

“The Russians are certainly providing plenty of arms to Assad.

“We can change the nature of the battle by giving them certain types of equipment and encouraging more defections,” Schenker, a former Pentagon analyst on Syria and Lebanon, told The Jerusalem Post. “Ultimately the goal would be to topple the regime. In the face of this slaughter, the Syrian people aren’t backing down.”

The Syrian Revolution Coordinating Commission said at least 30 civilians in Homs were killed in bombardments on Thursday morning on mainly Sunni neighborhoods that have been the focus of attacks by the government forces led largely by members of Assad’s Alawite religious minority.

Such sectarian divisions have been coming to the surface as killings have increased on both sides.

Concern was growing over the plight of civilians and the United States said it was considering ways to get food and medicine to them – a move that would deepen international involvement in a conflict that has wide geopolitical dimensions and has caused division among foreign powers.

“We on the US side have already been looking at what we can do to prepare ourselves on both the financial and legal side(s) so that we’re ready to provide humanitarian aid, such as food and medicine,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. “But we’re going to have to work with our international partners, we’re going to have to work with neighboring states to identify coordinators on the ground who could assist in receiving this aid and in distributing it.”

John McCain, a US senator and former presidential candidate, said Washington needs a more proactive Syria policy, and called to provide the rebels with arms. In an interview with CNN on Thursday, the Arizona Republican said “peaceful means” have been exhausted, and other options need to be considered.

“We could do things by providing them with intelligence information, with satellite information, with information on the movements of the Syrian armed forces,” McCain said, adding that the US and allies could provide medical help and work with Turkey to provide refuge for fleeing Syrians.

Foreign ministers of the Arab League, which the UN’s Ban said was planning to revive an observer mission it suspended last month, are due to meet in Cairo on Sunday. They may want to hear other governments’ ideas by then.

Libya gave Syria’s charge d’affaires and his staff in Tripoli 72 hours to leave the country, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Thursday.

China, cool to Western lobbying for international involvement, nonetheless reported its first formal contact with a Syrian opposition figure who visited Beijing last week.

In Homs, the main street in Baba Amro was strewn with rubble and at least one house was destroyed, according to YouTube footage broadcast by activists from the district who said troops had used anti-aircraft cannon to demolish the building.

One video showed a youth putting two bodies wrapped in blankets in a truck. What appeared to be body parts were shown inside the house.

A doctor, his name given only as Muhammad, broadcast a cry for help on YouTube from his makeshift surgery in a mosque.

Standing next to a bloody body on a table, he said: “We appeal to the international community to help us transport the wounded. We wait for them here to die in mosques. I appeal to the United Nations and to international humanitarian organizations to stop the rockets from being fired on us.”

The Syrian Human Rights Organization said this week’s assault on Homs had killed at least 300 civilians and wounded 1,000, not counting Thursday’s toll. International officials have estimated the overall death toll in Syria since last March at more than 5,000.

Activists said neighborhoods of Homs remained without electricity and water and basic supplies were running low.

Russia and China, which let the United Nations support the air campaign in Libya, provoked strong condemnation from the United States, European powers and Arab governments when they vetoed a resolution in the Security Council last week that called on Assad to step down.

Moscow, for whom Syria is a buyer of arms and host to a Soviet-era naval base, wants to counter US influence and maintain its traditional role in the Middle East.

Campaigning for next month’s presidential election that he is certain to win, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said: “Help them, advise them, limit, for instance, their ability to use weapons but not interfere under any circumstances.”

Ban said it was more urgent than ever to find common ground. In an implicit criticism of the Assad government, he said: “Such violence is unacceptable before humanity... We have heard too many broken promises, even within the past 24 hours.”

In Washington, officials said the United States planned to meet soon with its allies to discuss ways to halt the violence and provide humanitarian aid to civilians under attack.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the talks, which would include the opposition Syrian National Council, were aimed at helping the process “move toward a peaceful, political transition, democratic transition in Syria.”

Also on Thursday, Syria’s top Sunni cleric thanked Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his unwavering support of the Assad regime, the Iranian presidency website reported.

Grand Mufti Sheikh Ahmed Badreddin Hassoun conveyed the “thanks of the Syrian people and president for the stance of Ahmadinejad and our nation,” the website said after a meeting between the two men late on Wednesday in Tehran, AFP reported.

Ahmadinejad told the cleric that “the main aim of the dominating and bullying powers is to preserve the Zionist regime.”

“The US and its allies are seeking to launch a new war in the region and to break the line of Islamic resistance,” Ahmadinejad said.

“But we believe that with wisdom and unity we can stand against them.”

Iran has stood by its longtime ally Damascus during the past year’s unrest, but denies Western allegations it is providing military and financial support for Assad’s crackdown.

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