Syrian forces killed another 24 people in flashpoint cities on Friday, rights activists said, as the opposition warned of an impending “massacre” by regime troops ringing the central protest hub of Homs.
The US and Britain separately voiced concern over the bloodletting in Homs, where 11 of Friday’s deaths occurred, and Washington urged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to allow independent monitors into the country in line with an Arab League peace plan.
Damascus, which blames “armed terrorist gangs” for the violence, meanwhile appealed to the international community to help it find an “honorable exit” to the crisis, notably by stopping the flow of weapons into Syria.
On the ground, four children were among 24 people killed when regime forces opened fire in several cities across the country after the weekly Muslim prayers, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
The Observatory said 11 civilians were killed in and around Homs, while five died near Damascus, two in Dara’a, cradle of anti--regime protests since March, four in the city of Hama and two in the northwestern province of Idlib.
Pro-democracy activists had called on citizens to turn out in support of a “dignity strike ... which will lead to the sudden death of this tyrant regime.”
An Arab League ministerial task force was due to meet yesterday in Qatar to mull a response to Syria after it refused to allow observers on its territory.
The pan-Arab bloc, which last month suspended Syria’s membership and hit it with sweeping sanctions, has warned it of more punitive measures unless it complies.
The opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) warned of a looming bloody final assault on Homs using the pretext of what the regime had called a “terrorist” attack on Thursday on an oil pipeline.
“The regime [is] paving the way to commit a massacre in order to extinguish the revolution in Homs,” said the SNC, a coalition of Assad opponents.
Homs, an important central junction city of 1.6 million residents mainly divided along confessional lines, is a tinderbox of sectarian tensions that the SNC said the regime was trying to exploit.
“The regime has tried hard to ignite the sectarian conflict using many dirty methods, which have included bombing and burning mosques, torturing and killing young men, and kidnapping women and children,” the SNC said.
Witnesses in Homs, already besieged for months, have reported a buildup of troops and pro-regime shabiha militiamen in armored vehicles who have set up more than 60 checkpoints, the SNC said.
“These are all signs of a security crackdown operation that may reach the level of a total invasion of the city,” it said, calling for international organizations to take action.
US Department of State spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that Assad would be responsible for any further deaths and expressed Washington’s deep concern for developments in Homs.
“There are reports today that the government may be preparing a very serious new assault on the city of Homs in a very large-scale way,” Nuland said.
London echoed Washington’s concern, with British Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt saying: “The Syrian government should immediately withdraw its forces from Homs and exercise restraint.”
The regime’s crackdown on dissent since mid-March has hit Homs particularly hard and activists say a great number of defecting soldiers have set up camp there.