Activists Say Syrian Troops Kill 50 in Homs as Ban Considers UN-AL Mission

Posted February 8th, 2012 at 7:20 pm (UTC-5)
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Syrian rights activists say government forces have killed at least 50 people in an ongoing assault on the central city of Homs, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has pledged to consider sending a joint U.N.-Arab League team to Syria to monitor the escalating violence.

British-based rights activists say troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad attacked Homs with gunfire, rockets and shells on Wednesday, heavily damaging more than 20 buildings in rebel-held districts. The activists say the government bombardment of Homs has killed hundreds of people since it began early Saturday. They say at least 13 other people were killed in violence around Syria Wednesday.

Syrian state media say “armed terrorists” detonated a car bomb in Homs, killing and wounding civilians and troops. State media also accused rebels of attacking the city's oil refinery. Casualty figures from the fighting could not be confirmed because Syria restricts independent reporting.

U.N. chief Ban said Wednesday he is considering a proposal from his Arab League counterpart Nabil Elaraby to deploy a joint observer team and a joint special envoy to Syria. Mr. Ban said he will consult U.N. Security Council members in the coming days on details of the proposed mission. He also said Elaraby told him the Arab League plans to send its own observers back to Syria.

The 22-member Arab League sent an observer team to Syria in December as part of an agreement with Damascus on steps to end the government's suppression of an 11-month opposition uprising. But Gulf states withdrew their observers in late January to protest the Syrian government's refusal to stop the crackdown.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Wednesday his government is ready to host an international conference to support the Syrian people. He said the conference should be held promptly in Istanbul or in another regional country. Davutoglu spoke before leaving for Washington to meet U.S. congressional leaders and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for talks likely to focus on Syria.

Washington has been exploring the possibility of providing humanitarian aid to Syrians in cooperation with U.S. allies. Western powers and Arab nations have said repeatedly they do not want to intervene militarily in the Syrian conflict.

In other developments, a senior EU official said the 27-nation bloc plans to announce a tightening of economic sanctions on the Assad government at a foreign ministers meeting February 27.

The EU official said new measures against Syria are likely to include a block on financial transactions with the Syrian central bank and a ban on purchases of Syrian phosphates – one of the country's main natural resources. EU nations buy about 40 percent of Syria's phosphate exports. The EU stopped importing oil from Syria last year.

The Kremlin said Russian President Dmitry Medvedev urged his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy to avoid “hasty unilateral moves” toward Syria. Mr. Medvedev spoke to the French president by telephone Wednesday.

Moscow used its U.N. Security Council veto last week to block a Western and Arab-backed resolution that would have endorsed an Arab League plan calling on Mr. Assad to step aside. The Syrian president is a key Russian military ally.

Mr. Sarkozy's office said he used the phone conversation to call on the Russian president to fully support the Arab League plan and increase pressure on Mr. Assad to stop brutally repressing the Syrian people.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met Mr. Assad in Damascus on Tuesday and secured a pledge from the Syrian president to assign his deputy to hold a dialogue with the Syrian opposition. But Syrian opposition groups have rejected dialogue with the Assad government.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday Mr. Assad had an opportunity to talk to the opposition early in the uprising, but Washington believes that opportunity no longer exists.

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron said Wednesday he has “very little confidence” in the Russian-Syrian efforts, while French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Mr. Assad's promises are merely manipulation and should not be believed.

U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay called for urgent international action to protect civilians in Syria, saying she is “appalled” by the government's “willful assault on the city of Homs.” Pillay also said is it time for the international community to “cut through the politics and take action” to protect the civilian population.

In another development, Mr. Assad's wife Asma sent an e-mail to the British newspaper The Times on Tuesday, saying she stands by her husband. She also wrote that she is very involved in “encouraging dialogue” and comforting families of victims of the violence.