Syrian government forces pounded areas in the central province of Homs yesterday in a renewed push to regain control of rebel-held territories. Activists said at least 38 people were killed in shelling there over the past 24 hours.
The assault focused on the town of Qusair, near the border with Lebanon, where activists reported at least six people died yesterday. Three others died in shelling of the town of Talbiseh, north of Homs city, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“The mortars came down on Qusair by the dozens,” Qusair-based activist Abu al-Hoda said.
He said women and children have been huddled for days in basements of apartment buildings, too fearful to come out. On Saturday, 29 people died in violence across Homs, activists said.
Also yesterday, Syrian forces unleashed a new round of heavy shelling and sent reinforcements to a mountainous area near the coastal city of Latakia, where hundreds of rebels have set up base and which has also been the scene of fierce fighting in recent days.
Meanwhile, Syria’s main opposition group in exile, the Syrian National Council (SNC), elected a Kurdish dissident as its new leader at a meeting in Turkey, a council statement said.
Abdulbaset Sieda, a 56-year-old activist who has been living for many years in exile in Sweden, was the only candidate to replace liberal opposition leader Burhan Ghalioun for the three-month presidency. He was elected unanimously during an SNC meeting on Saturday night in Istanbul that stretched into the early hours yesterday.
The Paris-based Ghalioun had presided over the council since it was created in August last year, but recently offered to step down over mounting criticism of his leadership and repeated renewals of his three-month term. Several prominent Syrian dissidents have quit the group, calling it an “autocratic” organization no better than Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian rule.
They also said the group was dominated by Islamists, including the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.
The Syrian opposition has been hobbled by disorganization and infighting since the popular revolt against al-Assad began in March last year. Its international backers have repeatedly appealed for the movement to pull together and work as one unit. The SNC itself has been plagued by infighting, hampering efforts by Western and Arab nations to help the opposition.
Sieda is a secular member of Syria’s minority Kurd community. He is seen as a neutral, consensus figure and has said his priority would be to expand the council to include more opposition figures, particularly from Syria’s religious minorities.
“Our first mission is to continue with the restructuring of the council. We will also be working on establishing and strengthening relations with the other opposition parties,” he said.
His elevation to the post of SNC chief could be part of an attempt to appeal to Syria’s significant Kurdish minority, which has largely stayed on the sidelines of the uprising. The community is deeply suspicious that Sunni Arabs who dominate the opposition will be no more likely to provide them greater rights than what they have had under al-Assad’s regime.