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Syria Resumes Heavy Shelling of Homs (NY) TIMES) By NEIL MacFARQUHAR BEIRUT, LEBANON 02/15/12)Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/15/world/middleeast/syrian-tanks-resume-shelling-despite-un-rebuke.html NEW YORK TIMES NEW YORK TIMES Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Life has become increasingly unbearable in Homs, a city under fierce bombardment by the Syrian government, with residents recounting days of deprivation, rockets and tank shells exploding around them and efforts to bribe government soldiers to escape during lulls in the fighting.

A young woman who fled the city, Syria’s third-largest, for Beirut spoke on Tuesday of the hellish experience that she and others had endured, trapped in their dwellings without heat while desperately awaiting breaks in the military offensive to forage for food or try to escape.

The Syrian government pressed its campaign against rebellious cities across the country on Tuesday, with residents of the central city of Homs describing the renewed shelling there as particularly harsh.

Activists in Homs said that during the most intense periods of shelling, starting around first light on Tuesday, rockets and tank shells whistled into the embattled Baba Amr neighborhood as often as every two minutes.

“The idea of safety doesn’t exist anymore in Baba Amr,” Omar Shakir, an activist in the neighborhood reached via Skype, said as explosions erupted in the background. “Scary is all that exists.”

Videos uploaded to YouTube’s syriapioneer channel showed gray and black smoke leaping high overhead as shells crashed into buildings, while the staccato outbursts of machine guns sounded incessantly. Activists described it as the heaviest shelling in five days in an assault that began on Feb. 4.

The city lacks electricity and cellphone service, and land lines fade erratically. Facebook pages overflow with requests from relatives abroad asking people inside Syria to check on their loved ones.

The young woman who fled, a 19-year-old student who asked not to be named because her parents were still in Homs, arrived in Beirut on Tuesday. She said that troops allowed civilians to escape on Saturday and Sunday and that people bribed soldiers to ferry them out of the Inshaat neighborhood on tanks or to clear roadways for them to drive their cars out.

She described a city where “all roads were closed, and even if they weren’t, the shelling makes it impossible for you to go anywhere.”

Government services have collapsed, she said, and high, stinking piles of garbage rot on many corners or emit rancid smoke — having been ignited by fighters inside the city for camouflage against government snipers.

Residents have grown to fear the two main hospitals, she said, because the doctors still reporting to work tend to be government sympathizers. Some even carry guns as they make their rounds.

But she detailed a kind of symbiotic cease-fire that had developed between the young army recruits deployed at some neighborhood checkpoints, the font of many defections. The soldiers get food and a certain degree of safety, while residents feel they can run short errands unmolested or occasionally escape entirely.

Residents live in multiple layers of clothing and ration their use of kerosene for heat and hot water. On relatively quiet days, the food stores open, and people rush to buy canned food and flashlights. Simple things like Pepsi have become a luxury item, she said, while hallways in many homes are now stacked with bags of rice and sugar.

“They are anticipating a long siege,” the student said.

Civilians in the Inshaat neighborhood felt more vulnerable because there was no one to protect them, while most of the soldiers from the Free Syrian Army — the name adopted by all local militias — were in Baba Amr. A couple of neighborhoods nearby asked the antigovernment militia members not to come in at all so they could remain safe havens where the wounded, women and children could seek shelter.

In Baba Amr, Mr. Shakir, the activist, estimated that 60 percent of the buildings had suffered too much damage to be habitable. The neighborhood was hit by occasional mortar shells overnight, he said, with the heavier tank and other rounds coming at daylight.

“We are under full siege. It is horrible here,” Mr. Shakir said. “I have not tasted bread for the past five days.”

The Syrian government says that it is attacking foreign-inspired terrorist gangs in Baba Amr, and that the fires are tires set alight to make it seem as if the buildings are burning. Syria has severely limited access by members of the foreign media to the country, so claims about the fighting in Homs were impossible to verify independently.

Aside from Homs, activists said the government was assaulting neighborhoods from the outskirts of Aleppo in the north to the area around Idlib — where there is a concentration of defecting soldiers — down to the suburbs of Damascus and the southern city of Deraa, where the uprising first started last March.

After antigovernment protesters blocked the main highway just outside Aleppo toward Turkey with burning tires, the government moved in tanks that clashed with defecting soldiers, said a statement from the Local Coordinating Committees.

It said dozens of people died on Tuesday, the toll including what it said were two victims of torture at the hands of the security services, whose bodies were dumped in public.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in Britain, said five government troops died and nine were wounded in a gunfight with defecting soldiers near Hama. It had no other details.

The official news agency reported that 13 members of the security services were buried on Tuesday.

But with diplomacy stalled, the renewed onslaught seemed to confirm the accusation by Navi Pillay, the top United Nations human rights official, who told the General Assembly on Monday that the Syrian authorities were interpreting the repeated international failure to end the violence as a green light to escalate deadly attacks on its political opponents with indiscriminate brutality and “overwhelming force.”

Syria’s Foreign Ministry responded by sending Ms. Pillay a letter emphasizing its “absolute rejection” of her claims, reported SANA, the official news agency. “The ministry pointed out that the commissioner has been turned into a tool in the hands of some countries targeting Syria and ignoring the terrorist crimes committed by the armed groups,” it said.

Syria has repeatedly denied requests by the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council, which works closely with Ms. Pillay, to send a fact-finding mission to Syria. The United Nations stopped tallying the death toll in the 11-month uprising after it passed 5,400 in January, because it could no longer verify the numbers.

Ms. Pillay said at least 300 people were killed in Homs just in 10 days.

At the United Nations General Assembly, Egypt took the lead in circulating the draft text of a nonbinding resolution endorsing Arab League efforts to halt the violence and begin a political transition toward democracy. A copy of the latest draft basically echoed the resolution negotiated in the Security Council that Russia and China vetoed in early February.

It also called on Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, to appoint a special envoy to the conflict to underscore the importance of trying to reach a peaceful settlement.

On Tuesday, China, which with Russia vetoed an Arab and Western plan to urge President Bashar al-Assad to step aside, said it had taken new soundings in the region, sending a Foreign Ministry envoy, Li Huaxin, to Cairo for what were called “frank and useful” talks with Nabil al-Araby, the head of the Arab League, news reports said.

Mr. Araby has been canvassing support for a joint Arab League-United Nations peace-keeping force in Syria, but the Damascus authorities have rejected the idea outright and Russia has spoken dismissively of it.

In Cairo, Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb, the head of prestigious Al Azhar College of Islamic Studies, called for urgent Arab action to stop the violence. "I call on the human conscience to stop this hellish killing machine that works to shed blood,” he said, according to The Associated Press. He added, “The international conscience must be awoken in China and Russia.”

Hwaida Saad and an employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Beirut, and Rick Gladstone from New York. (Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company 02/15/12)


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