Homs under assault, Russia unbending on Syria

Pro-Assad militia kills three families, 47 dead overnight in Homs, say activists; Putin warns against intervention.

Homs after bombardment 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Homs after bombardment 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
AMMAN- Syrian forces thrusting into the rebellious city of Homs on Wednesday killed at least 67 civilians, including three families slain in their homes by militiaman loyal to President Bashar Assad, activists said.
The onslaught on Homs, one of the bloodiest of the 11-month-old revolt against Assad, has not relented despite a promise to end the bloodshed that the Syrian leader gave to Russia, which saved Damascus from UN Security Council action on Sunday.
A Turkish newspaper close to the government said Turkey, which has taken a strong stand against former ally Assad, planned to organize a conference with Arab and Western governments in Istanbul. The conference would be part of a broader Turkish initiative that may be outlined on Wednesday.
In the latest assault on Homs, troops fired rockets and mortars while tanks entered the Inshaat neighborhood and moved closer to Bab Amro, the district hardest hit by bombardments that have killed at least 150 people in the last two days, activists in the city and opposition sources said.
"Electricity returned briefly and we were able to contact various neighborhoods because activists there managed to recharge their phones. We counted 47 killed since midnight," activist Mohammad Hassan said by satellite phone.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday the world faced a growing "cult of violence" and Moscow must not let events like those in Libya and Syria be repeated in Russia, issuing a warning to the West against interference.
"We of course condemn all violence regardless of its source, but one cannot act like an elephant in a china shop," Putin told Russian religious leaders at a meeting as talk turned to Libya and Syria.
"Help them, advise them, limit, for instance, their ability to use weapons but not interfere under any circumstances," said Putin, whose country vetoed a UN Security Council resolution last week backing an Arab League call for Syria's president to cede power.
"A cult of violence has been coming to the fore in international affairs in the past decade," he said. "This cannot fail to cause concern ... and we must not allow anything like this in our country."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said countries with influence over the Syrian opposition should press them to enter a dialogue with Assad, comments that made clear Moscow had no immediate intention of abandoning its long-time ally.
Lavrov was speaking in Moscow a day after he met Assad in Damascus, where he said both nations wanted to revive an Arab League monitoring effort that was suspended due to violence.
Syrian opposition figures, who said Lavrov had brought no new initiative, spurn Assad's promises of reform as meaningless while his troops are killing civilians and say he must go.
Walid al-Bunni, a senior member of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), dismissed Lavrov's dialogue proposal.
Click for full JPost coverageClick for full JPost coverage
"The Arab initiative is clear. Assad must step down and Syrians will then be ready to sit together at a table with whoever succeeds him to discuss a democratic transition," the head of the SNC's foreign policy committee told Reuters.
Western and Arab states frustrated by the Russian and Chinese vetoes of their draft UN resolution are seeking to isolate Assad and bolster those opposed to his 11-year rule.
Pro-Assad militiamen shot dead at least 20 civilians in Homs when they stormed their homes on the outskirts of opposition areas overnight, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Rami Abdelrahman, who heads the British-based Observatory, told Reuters the unarmed victims were a family of five, one of seven and one of eight.
There was no immediate comment from Syrian authorities and the report could not be verified. The authorities have placed tight restrictions on access to the country.
Diplomatic pressure
"Assad is seeing the civilised world turn against him and he thinks he will win if he uses more brutal force before the world could act," said Catherine al-Talli, a senior SNC member.
The attack on Homs has intensified Western and regional diplomatic pressure on Assad. The six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council recalled their ambassadors from Damascus on Tuesday and expelled Syrian envoys from their own capitals.
Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd called in Syria's charge d'affaires Jawdat Ali on Wednesday and told him it was time for Assad to "find an exit strategy before the situation in Syria degenerates further and more lives are lost".