Syria resumes shelling after rejecting peace force
DAMASCUS - Agence France-Presse
Syrian tanks are seen in Bab Amro near the city of Homs February 12, 2012. REUTERS PhotoSyrian troops pounded the protest hub of Homs on Monday, activists said, after the Arab League agreed to open contacts with the opposition and to send a peacekeeping force to the strife-torn country.
The embattled government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad "categorically" rejected the moves of the pan-Arab bloc, which were adopted in Cairo on Sunday following marathon meetings.
Within hours of an Arab League statement, Syria's army resumed its shelling of Baba Amr, a rebel bastion in the central city of Homs, while ground forces forces swept through southern Daraa region arresting dissidents, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
"The neighbourhood of Baba Amr has been subjected to sporadic shelling since 5:00 am (0300 GMT) by the Syrian army," the Britain-based Observatory said in a statement sent to AFP.
Forces also raided homes to arrest people at Basra al-Sham in Daraa province, cradle of the 11-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
"There were fierce clashes between defectors and the army which stormed Lajat (also in Daraa province) and arrested the mothers of four dissidents," said the Observatory.
Elsewhere, a sniper killed a civilian in the central city of Hama and three soldiers died in Rastan, a town in Homs province.
Activists say Assad's forces have killed at least 500 people in Homs since they began attacking the central city with a barrage of tank shells, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades on February 4.
On Sunday, the Arab League said it had agreed to open contacts with Syria's opposition and ask the United Nations to form a joint peacekeeping force to the nation.
Arab League diplomats "will open channels of communication with the Syrian opposition and offer full political and financial support, urging (the opposition) to unify its ranks," said a League statement obtained by AFP.
They would also "ask the UN Security Council to issue a decision on the formation of a joint UN-Arab peacekeeping force to oversee the implementation of a ceasefire." Syria's ambassador to Cairo denounced the measures, which only Algeria and Lebanon expressed reservations about.
"The Syrian Arab Republic categorically rejects the decisions of the Arab League," which "reflects the hysteria of these governments" after failing to get foreign intervention at the UN Security Council, said Yusef Ahmed.
Al-Watan newspaper, which is close to Syria's government, on Monday slammed Arab nations for backing the latest peace initiative, singling out Qatar.
"The Arabs have exhausted all avenues and all they can do now is bring in foreign forces to occupy Syria," it said.
"Qatar's leaders are behaving like megalomaniacs. They promised to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to bring down the Syrian regime." The government daily Al-Thawra said the League meeting "marked the peak of political and moral rudeness, which was at its lowest.
"The Arab League countries were trying to outbid each other as far scheming, betrayal and political prostitution." Burhan Ghalioun, leader of the opposition Syrian National Council, welcomed the moves as "a first step" towards the fall of the regime.
In London, Foreign Secretary William Hague said Britain would have urgent talks with the League over its proposal for a joint peacekeeping force to Syria, where an estimated 6,000 people have died since protests erupted in March.
"We will discuss urgently with the Arab League and our international partners the proposals for a joint AL/UN peacekeeping force," Hague said in a statement issued Monday.
Hague also welcomed the Arab League's decision to endorse a "Friends of Syria" group, including Britain, which will meet in Tunisia on February 24.
As the military pressed its onslaught on Homs, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and International Committee of the Red Cross said their "volunteers are distributing food, medical supplies, blankets, and hygiene consumables to thousands of people" in the city.
"The population, particularly the wounded and sick, are bearing the brunt of the violence," said the ICRC's Marianne Gasser.
Arab and western states will launch a bid at the UN General Assembly this week to put pressure on Assad after Saudi Arabia and Qatar drew up a resolution backing the League plan to end the crackdown.
The move follows the Russian and Chinese veto of virtually the same resolution in the Security Council on February 4. Moscow and Beijing are expected to oppose the new text.
However, no one can veto resolutions in the 193-nation General Assembly, which carry less weight.
The United States said it was bringing "pressure to bear" on Syria, along with its allies, and that "this regime will come to an end." On Sunday, state television showed an official funeral for the 28 people authorities say died two days earlier in twin car bombs in the northern city of Aleppo.
Damascus blamed the attacks on foreign-backed "terrorists," but rebel forces accused the regime of carrying out the bombings to divert attention away from its brutal offensives elsewhere.
A US media report citing unnamed American officials said Al-Qaeda's Iraqi branch was likely to have carried out the bombings, along with attacks in Damascus in December and January.