Syrians set to face a bloody assault
Damascus - Syrians took to the streets of Homs on Friday despite an opposition warning of a "massacre" by thousands of regime forces and militias who encircled the protest hub for a final assault to crush dissent.
And local rights groups reported later that forces killed at least six people, including two children, when they fired randomly on protesters in Homs, one of many areas where people rallied after the main weekly Muslim prayers.
Pro-democracy activists had called on citizens to take to the streets across the troubled country in support of a "dignity strike... which will lead to the sudden death of this tyrant regime".
Ahead of the demonstrations, the opposition Syrian National Council warned of a bloody final assault on Homs using the pretext of what the regime had called a "terrorist" attack 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 principle umbrella group drawing together Assad's 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," said the SNC.
"The regime also took a significant step... in burning oil pipelines in the neighbourhood of Baba Amr to blame what the regime calls 'armed gangs'; in an attempt to crush the peaceful uprising on the pretext of a war on terrorism."
Witnesses on the ground in Homs, already besieged for months, had reported a build-up of troops and pro-regime "Shabiha" militiamen in armoured vehicles who have set up more than 60 checkpoints, said the opposition group.
"These are all signs of a security crackdown operation that may reach the level of a total invasion of the city.
"We warn of the consequences of committing such a crime that could result in a massive number of casualties," said the SNC.
"We hold accountable the regime, and behind it the Arab League and the international community of what could happen to innocent civilians in the next few hours or days, and the implications for the region as a whole in the near future.
"The Syrian National Council also calls on all relevant international organisations and human rights organisations to take immediate action to pressure the international forums to provide immediate protection to civilians in Homs in particular, and throughout Syria in general."
The Assad 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 to protect the protest movement.
An explosion on Thursday tore apart a pipeline taking crude to an oil refinery in Homs from eastern Syria, in an attack the regime blamed on "armed terrorist gangs".
But the Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC), which organises the protests, accused Assad's government of deliberately destroying the pipeline which serves a region seen as staunchly opposed to his rule.
4 000+ killed - UN
Two children - aged 10 and 12 - were among at least six people killed by Syrian security forces on Friday in Homs and on the outskirts of Damascus, rights groups said.
The regime's crackdown on dissent has killed more than 4 000 people in Syria, according to UN figures.
UN human rights chief Navi Pillay is due to address the Syria crisis on Friday and is expected to brief the UN Security Council by Tuesday at the request of France, Britain and German, diplomats said.
"It will be useful because it will allow the Security Council to examine its own responsibilities" in the crisis, said a UN diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity.
Diplomats said they notice signs of a shift in attitude by opponents of UN action against President Assad.
However Western governments are waiting to see what impact Arab League sanctions have on Syria.
Turkey urged Assad on Friday to punish the "murderers" of anti-regime protesters and accept observers proposed by the Arab League.
And Syria's foreign ministry said it was studying a response from the Arab League to conditions sought by Assad's government to accept the delegation of monitors.