Respite for Homs before Arab meeting

2012-02-12 17:00

Amman/Beirut - Traumatised residents straggled from their homes in Homs city on Sunday after Syrian forces eased a week-long bombardment that has killed hundreds and caused a humanitarian crisis.

A few families were allowed to leave mostly Sunni Muslim opposition districts where people had been trapped indoors for days by relentless artillery and sniper fire, residents said.

The respite in Homs, at the heart of a popular uprising against President Bashar Assad's 11-year rule, coincided with a meeting of the Arab League in Cairo on Sunday.

The League, which suspended Syria over a crackdown that has killed thousands since March, was to discuss a possible joint United Nations-Arab monitoring team, which would replace a League mission called off last month as violence intensified.

An official source at the League said the meeting would also consider appointing a UN-Arab League envoy for Syria. Some states may also propose the League formally recognise the Syrian National Council, an opposition group in exile.

In the western city of Homs, shelling eased during Saturday night and Sunday morning.

About 15 families were allowed to leave from the battered Baba Amro and Inshaat neighbourhoods, opposition campaigner Mohammad al-Hassan told Reuters by telephone from Homs.

"Heavy artillery has given way to sporadic anti-aircraft gun fire overnight, and rumours are being circulated by the regime that it is okay to go out in the streets today, but no one is doing that because no one believes them," he said.

Electricity and telephone lines were working in several districts of Homs after being cut off more than two weeks ago.

Green and white flags

YouTube footage showed several thousand people rallying in Deir Baalba district. Youths with their arms around each other's shoulders danced and waved the green and white flags of the republic overthrown by Assad's Baath Party in a 1963 coup.

"God damn your soul, to hell with you Bashar. Our martyrs are going to heaven, Hafez and Bashar," they chanted, referring to the president and his late father.

The Assad family, from the minority Alawite sect, have ruled Sunni-majority Syria for 42 years.

The opposition Local Co-ordination Committees cited doctors at makeshift hospitals as saying at least 31 people were killed in Homs on Saturday before the lull in bombardment.

World powers are divided over how to end the conflict which threatens to blow open the complex ethnic, religious and political faultlines across the Middle East.

On Feb. 4, Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution sponsored by Western and Arab states that backed an Arab League transition plan calling for Assad to step down.

Diplomats at the United Nations say Saudi Arabia, a Sunni power irked by Assad's alliance with its Shi'ite regional rival Iran, has floated a similar draft for the UN General Assembly, where resolutions are non-binding but cannot be vetoed.

But a Saudi foreign ministry official denied on Sunday that Riyadh had formally submitted any such measure. "No provision of any draft resolution on behalf of the Kingdom has been presented to the General Assembly," he told the state news agency SPA.

Ferocious crackdown

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said on Saturday that Moscow would not back any "unbalanced" text in the assembly similar to the one it blocked in the Security Council.

On Friday, Saudi King Abdullah said the Russian and Chinese veto of the Syria resolution was an "unfavourable" move.

In a rare show of compromise, government forces and rebels struck a truce in the town of Zabadani near the Lebanese border after a week of shelling by the military. Opposition sources say no similar negotiations have taken place in Homs.

Under the agreement, reached after a week-long tank and artillery bombardment that killed at least 100 in the town of 20 000, rebel forces were being allowed to leave if they gave up weapons and armour seized from government forces, said Kamal al-Labwani, an opposition leader in exile.

"Cooler heads in the military somehow prevailed over whoever has been issuing orders to shell Zabadani with heavy artillery. In the end it was in the interest of the two sides to prevent a bloodbath," Labwani said.

Assad has sent his forces into cities and towns across Syria to put down the uprising, drawing armed resistance, defections by soldiers, and world outrage at the ferocity of the crackdown.

As the uprising has evolved from pro-democracy street protests to armed insurrection, world powers fear a slide into civil war with knock-on effects for Syria's neighbours.

Gulf Arab states, the United States, Europe and Turkey hope diplomacy can force Assad out and have ruled out military action of the kind that helped oust Libya's Muammar Gaddafi last year.

Assad can count on the support of Russia, Syria's main arms supplier and an ally stretching back to the Soviet era, as well as Iran. Moscow, which is keen to counter US influence in the Middle East, insists foreign powers should not interfere.