Syria tightens grip on Homs, UN leaves

2012-06-17 21:16

Damascus - Syrian troops on Sunday tightened their grip on the flashpoint city of Homs as the opposition demanded the deployment of armed peacekeepers after UN observers halted their work because of bloodshed.

Violence cost at least another 19 lives on Sunday, taking the overall weekend death toll across the country close to 90, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Among them was a civilian killed in the rebel bastion of Khalidiyeh, which, like other parts of Homs, was "being shelled and shot at by regime forces who have been trying to enter these districts for several days," the watchdog said.

Four civilians were also killed in the Homs province rebel towns of Rastan and Talbisseh, the Observatory said, adding that violence hit other provinces, including Aleppo in the north and Deir Ezzor in the east.

Speaking to AFP via Skype from the Old City neighbourhood of Homs, opposition activist Abu Bilal said the regime assault on several parts of the central city was "suffocating".

"They are shelling us all the time. There's very little food and water, and we're running out of medication."

If regime forces enter the besieged city hundreds of people trapped inside "will be massacred," he said, echoing opposition warnings.

The Observatory has said that more than 1 000 families were stuck in the area, with dozens injured. Abu Bilal said many could die if they do not receive medical treatment.

A video posted on YouTube by activists shows clouds of black and grey smoke rising over buildings in the Old City, as the sound of shelling and shooting rips through the silence of what appeared to be a ghost town.

No milk

Another video shows widespread destruction in the Homs district of Jourat al-Shiah, including deserted streets and a shelled building on fire.

"We don't have any milk for the children, nor water, nor electricity," a mother of two whose house was destroyed says on the video.

"We are not scared. We don't want weapons or money. We just want a way to get our children out of here," she says.

The authenticity of the videos could not immediately be verified.

Home to rebel hideouts, Homs has been under intermittent attack by regime forces ever since its district of Baba Amr was relentlessly pounded for a month before being retaken by the regime early in March.

The opposition Syrian National Council, meanwhile, urged the UN Security Council to send armed peacekeepers to the country to stem the bloodshed, after an unarmed UN observer mission decided to suspend its operations.

The SNC urged the Security Council to "intervene quickly, and to pass a resolution under Chapter VII [of the UN Charter] to arm the UN monitors, so that they can defend themselves... and ensure that the regime stops killing, while enforcing [UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's] peace plan."

The United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria, or UNSMIS, suspended its operations two months into its three-month mandate on Saturday, blaming the intensifying violence.

The observers deployed in mid-April to monitor a UN-backed but widely flouted ceasefire, and were likened to "sitting ducks in a shooting gallery" by Susan Rice, the US envoy to the United Nations.

High risk situation

UN mission chief Major General Robert Mood said operations were suspended due to an escalation in fighting and the risk to his 300-strong UN team, as well as a "lack of willingness" for peace by the warring parties.

"This escalation is limiting our ability to observe, verify, report as well as assist in local dialogue and stability projects - basically impeding our ability to carry out our mandate," Mood said in a statement on Saturday.

"In this high risk situation, UNSMIS is suspending its activities," he added.

The observers "will not conduct patrols and will stay in their locations until further notice," he said, adding that the suspension would be reviewed daily.

Syria's foreign ministry said it "understands" the decision, stressing that "armed terrorist groups" had been threatening its members.

The United States said the decision marked a "critical juncture" for Syria while British Foreign Secretary William Hague said it "calls into serious question the viability of the UN mission."

His Turkish counterpart Ahmed Davutoglu called for tougher UN action, including a "situation assessment" and a "new measure" to stem the deadly violence that has hit Syria since mid-March last year.

More than 14 400 people have died in the 16-month uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, according to the watchdog.