Tue, Feb 28, 2012 - Page 7 News List

Homs under fire as Syria awaits referendum result

Reuters, Amman

Syrian artillery pummeled rebel-held areas of Homs yesterday before an expected government announcement that a vote — decried as a sham by the opposition and the West — has approved a new constitution proposed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Shells and rockets crashed into Sunni Muslim districts of Homs that have already endured weeks of bombardment as al-Assad’s forces, led by officers from his minority Alawite sect, try to stamp out an almost year-long revolt against his 11-year rule.

“Intense shelling started on Khalidiya, Ashira, Bayada, Baba Amro and the old city at dawn,” opposition activist Mohammed al-Homsi said from the city on the Damascus-Aleppo highway.

“The army is firing from the main thoroughfares deep into alleyways and side streets. Initial reports indicate at least two people killed in the souk [“market”] area,” he said.

At least 59 civilians and soldiers were killed on Sunday in a violent backdrop to a referendum on a constitution that offers some reforms, but could keep al-Assad in power until 2028.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, which has said conditions in parts of Homs are worsening by the hour, has failed to secure a pause in the fighting to allow the wounded to be evacuated and desperately needed aid to be delivered.

The outside world has proved powerless to halt the carnage in Syria, where repression of initially peaceful protests has spawned an armed insurrection by army deserters and others.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin again warned the West against military intervention in Syria, Moscow’s longtime ally, but US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made clear there was no enthusiasm in Washington for war. Russia and China have blocked action against Syria by the UN Security Council.

The Syrian government, which is also backed by Iran, says it is fighting foreign-backed “armed terrorist groups.”

While the West dismisses talk of a Libya-style NATO role to support al-Assad’s opponents, Gulf Arab states have pushed for a more forceful stance. Saudi Arabia said on Friday it would back the idea of arming rebels — a proposal likely to alarm Moscow.

“I very much hope the United States and other countries ... do not try to set a military scenario in motion in Syria without sanction from the UN Security Council,” Putin said.

Clinton told BBC TV there was “every possibility” of civil war.

“Outside intervention would not prevent that, it would probably expedite it,” she said. “We have a very dangerous set of actors in the region: al Qaeda, Hamas and those who are on our terrorist list claiming to support the opposition. You have many Syrians more worried about what could come next.”

The Syrian government was due to announce the result of the vote on the constitution, which would drop an article making al-Assad’s Baath Party the leader of state and society, allow political pluralism and enact a presidential limit of two seven-year terms. A parliamentary poll would be held in three months.

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