39 Dead as Homs Hit with 'Heaviest Shelling' and Thousands Rally for Assad Ousterإقرأ هذا الخبر بالعربية
Thousands of Syrians rallied Friday to demand President Bashar al-Assad's ouster, as the embattled leader's forces unleashed their heaviest pounding yet of Homs in a brutal bid to crush dissent and killed 39 people across the country, monitors said.
The 39 victims included 12 dissident soldiers who were summarily executed at the hands of regime troops in the southern province of Daraa, the cradle of the revolution, the Local Coordination Committees, the main activist group spurring protests on the ground, said.
Fifteen people were killed in Daraa, five in the Damascus neighborhood of Mezzeh, four in the central province of Homs, and three in each of the eastern protest hub of Deir al-Zour, the northern province of Aleppo, the central flashpoint province of Hama and the restive countryside around Damascus, the LCC said.
The protesters emerged from mosques after the main weekly Muslim prayers, including in Damascus, following a call by Internet-based activists for a rally for a "new phase of popular resistance."
"We want revenge against Bashar and Maher," they chanted at gatherings across the country, according to videos posted on YouTube, referring to the president's brother, who heads the feared Fourth Armored Division.
They turned out after the U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly backed an Arab League initiative calling on Assad to step aside, and ahead of a visit by a Chinese envoy pushing for peace.
Assad, in remarks to visiting Mauritanian Prime Minister Moulaye Ould Mohamed Laghdaf, said reforms have to be synchronized with a "return to peace" in the unrest-swept country.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said security forces fired at a demonstration in the capital.
At least 10,000 people demonstrated in the southern town of Dael, in Daraa province, cradle of the 11-month revolt inspired by the Arab Spring, said the Britain-based monitor.
In Homs, rockets crashed into strongholds of resistance at the rate of four a minute, according to one opposition activist who warned the city was facing a humanitarian crisis.
"It's the most violent in 14 days. It's unbelievable -- extreme violence the like of which we have never seen before," said Hadi Abdullah of the General Commission of the Syrian Revolution.
"There are thousands of people isolated in Homs ... There are neighborhoods that we know nothing about. I myself do not know if my parents are okay. I have had no news from them for 14 days," he told Agence France Presse by phone.
A tank fired into a residential part of Homs, before bursts of machinegun fire clattered across the neighborhood, a video activists uploaded to YouTube showed.
"The regime troops are still shelling ... but are reluctant to enter Baba Amr. They are on the periphery and are moving slowly. The army will lose if it begins urban warfare," activist Omar Shakir said later on Skype.
Rights groups estimated the two-week assault on Homs has killed almost 400 people, and a medic reached on Skype said 1,800 have been wounded.
"There are injuries that cannot be treated because of a lack of medical equipment," Dr. Ali al-Hazzouri told AFP. "There are casualties who are close to dying."
The onslaught killed five people in Homs, while another nine bodies were found in the city, said the Observatory, which also reported the shelling was the most intense in a fortnight.
The violence came after the U.N. General Assembly demanded on Thursday an immediate halt to Syria's brutal crackdown on dissent, which human rights groups say has cost more than 6,000 lives since March last year.
The strongly worded resolution, adopted by a 137-12 vote, calls on Damascus "to stop all violence or reprisals immediately, in accordance with the League of Arab States initiative."
It was referring to a peace plan put forward by the pan-Arab bloc calling on Assad to hand power over to his deputy and for the formation of a unity government ahead of elections.
Russia, China and Iran opposed the non-binding resolution. The vote came just days after Beijing and Moscow vetoed a similar resolution at the U.N. Security Council.
Such a strong vote in favor of the resolution adds to mounting pressure on Assad to curb a crackdown that left at least 41 people dead on Thursday as security forces bore down on focal points of dissent.
Egypt's deputy U.N. ambassador, Osama Abdul Khalek, said the General Assembly had sent an "unambiguous message" to Damascus: "It is high time to listen to the voice of the people."
But Syrian envoy Bashar Jaafari lashed out at other Arab nations, saying Western powers had exploited the Arab League to "internationalize" the crisis.
"The Arab Trojan horse has been unmasked today," he said.
Iran's U.N. representative, Mohammad Khazaee, warned that the resolution would only deepen the crisis, "with all its ramifications to the region as a whole."
On the eve of his trip to Damascus, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun said that Beijing opposed armed intervention and forced "regime change" in Syria.
On Thursday, Syria's opposition rejected a newly drafted constitution that could end nearly five decades of Baath Party rule, and urged voters to boycott a February 26 referendum on the charter.
One of them, the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, told AFP "it is impossible for us to take part in this referendum before a stop to the violence and killings."