Syrian Forces Kill 63; Red Cross Seeks Daily Truce

Posted February 21st, 2012 at 1:55 pm (UTC-5)
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Syrian security forces killed 63 people Tuesday in assaults on northern villages and a barrage of heavy shelling in the flashpoint city of Homs, as the Red Cross called for daily cease-fires to let in urgently needed aid.

Activists said at least 30 people died and more than 200 were wounded as government troops bombarded the rebel-held Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr, where at least two children were killed. They said security forces launched the assault after opposition fighters holding the Sunni Muslim district blocked troops from entering.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 33 more civilians were killed when government forces trying to crush opposition to President Bashar al-Assad stormed villages in northern Idlib province. The group said the assault targeted the settlement of Abdita and extended to neighboring areas.

The casualty figures could not be independently verified because phone lines have been cut and Syria restricts the operations of foreign media.

The International Committee of the Red Cross Tuesday called on Syrian authorities and rebels to immediately implement a daily two-hour cease-fire so it can deliver emergency aid and evacuate the sick and wounded. ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger said that in Homs and elsewhere, entire families have been isolated for days, unable to secure food, water or medical care.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the U.S. supports calls for a humanitarian cease-fire.

Also Tuesday, the U.S. State Department appeared to open the door to possibly arming Syria's rebels. Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the best outcome for the country would be a political solution but that if Mr. Assad refuses to yield to diplomatic pressure, “we may have to consider additional measures.”

While Homs was under assault, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a military convoy of more than 50 vehicles, including tanks and personnel carriers, was seen heading from Damascus toward the besieged central city.

The Syrian army has already deployed tanks and other reinforcements around Homs in preparation for a possible ground assault after bombarding it for more than two weeks.

The city is a major hub of the 11-month uprising against Mr. Assad's autocratic rule. Syria's military is under the control of Shi'ite Alawite officers, from the same minority sect as Mr. Assad, raising concerns the country is headed toward open civil war.

The escalation comes as Russia, a key ally of Mr. Assad, said it will not attend an international conference on Syria later this week because the Syrian government would not be represented. Russia's foreign ministry said the United Nations Security Council should send a special humanitarian envoy to Syria.

The “Friends of Syria” contact group – comprising Western and Arab nations openly seeking Mr. Assad's downfall – are planning to use Friday's meeting in Tunisia to increase pressure on the Syrian government to halt the bloodshed. Russia and China back Mr. Assad's own reform program, which the Syrian opposition has soundly rejected.

Earlier this month, Moscow and Beijing vetoed a Western- and Arab-backed effort to pass a Security Council resolution endorsing an Arab League plan for Mr. Assad to cede power. But Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby said Monday he believes Russia and China may be shifting their positions on the Syrian crisis.

Human rights activists say the violence has killed at least 6,000 people.