Syria bolsters troops
Damascus - Syrian troops massed around Homs, sparking calls on Monday for women and children to flee the besieged flashpoint city, as Iranian warships docked at the port of Tartus in a show of force.
The reported build-up came as the top US military officer, General Martin Dempsey, said any intervention in Syria would be "very difficult" and that it was "premature" to arm the unrest-swept country's opposition movement.
And China's influential People's Daily warned any Western support for Syria's rebels would lead a "large-scale civil war".
Activists and Syrian state media reported at least 14 people were killed on Sunday, adding to the more than 6 000 people who have died in President Bashar Assad's 11-month crackdown on dissent.
"Infantry troops arrived yesterday [Sunday] in Homs," Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said on the telephone on Monday.
A Homs-based activist voiced fears of an imminent attack on Baba Amr, the main rebel stronghold in the central city, speaking of "unprecedented military reinforcements coming from Damascus".
"News has been leaked to us from army officers about a bloody attack that will burn everything in Baba Amr," Hadi Abdullah of the General Commission of the Syrian Revolution said on Sunday.
"We were expecting the attack two nights ago, but it could have been just delayed because of the snowstorm," he said.
The Observatory said regime forces pounded Homs for the 17th straight day on Monday. Baba Amr neighbourhood was shelled early morning, and some rockets slammed into the districts of Karm al-Zaytoun and Al-Rifai.
Abdullah said on Sunday that Baba Amr was shelled at the rate of four to five rockets a minute. The Homs districts Bab Sbaa, Bab Dreib and al-Safsafa were targeted with sporadic shelling.
On Monday, Abdullah demanded a safe passage to allow women and children to leave Baba Amr.
"We want women and children to be allowed to leave," he said, adding that "people were suffering from the weather while their conditions are miserable".
Abdel Rahman was cautious about the timing of the expected attack.
"We do not know when the attack might happen," he said.
Two warships from Iran, a key backer of the Syrian regime, docked at the port of Tartus, Tehran's state television reported on Monday, adding that their crew would train Syrian sailors.
Iran's navy chief, Admiral Habibollah Sayari, said on Saturday that the ships, a destroyer and supply vessel, had passed through the Suez Canal to show the Islamic republic's military "might".
In Damascus, regime forces remained on alert after two days of large and unexpected protests, and after a call for a "day of defiance" was observed in restive neighbourhoods, according to activists.
"Following the surprising demonstrations [on Friday and Saturday], the regime is reconsidering its security measures," in the capital, said Abdel Rahman.
Mohammed Shami, a spokesperson for activists in Damascus province, said security was bolstered in some areas in the tense neighbourhood of Mazzeh, including around the Iranian embassy.
Two masked men flew a large green, white and black flag of "independence" from a bridge in Kfar Sousa neighbourhood, according to amateur video footage uploaded by activists to YouTube.
Activists reported on Sunday a security clampdown on Mazzeh, thwarting plans to stage large protests in the area, scene the day before of a funeral that became a huge anti-regime rally.
The funerals were for four people, including two teenagers, killed on Friday when security forces fired on protesters in Mazzeh, which houses many government offices and embassies.
Shami said on Sunday that most shops were shut in Mazzeh as well as in the Barzeh, Qaboon, Kfar Sousa and Jubar districts.
Another YouTube video showed rows of shops were shuttered in Barzeh for the fifth day of a general strike.
Meanwhile, the Syrian authorities freed blogger Razan Ghazzawi, symbol of an 11-month uprising, and six other female activists arrested last week, human rights lawyer Anwar Buni said.
The women were released on Saturday, but were ordered to report to police daily in order to continue their questioning, he said.
They were part of a group of 14 activists people arrested on Thursday in a raid on the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, a group headed by rights activist Mazen Darwish.