Syria Resumes Heavy Shelling of Homs (NY) TIMES) By NEIL MacFARQUHAR BEIRUT, LEBANON 02/15/12)
NEW YORK TIMES
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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
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
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
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
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
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
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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