Thursday, 01 March 2012 16:33
Edited from AP -- The Syrian regime showed a new determination Wednesday to crush its opponents, vowing to “cleanse” a rebel-held district in the besieged central city of Homs after nearly four weeks of shelling.
Government troops massed outside the embattled neighborhood of Baba Amr, raising fears among activists of an imminent ground invasion that could endanger thousands of residents, as well as two trapped Western journalists, who have been under heavy bombardment.
A Spanish journalist who had been stuck in the area escaped Wednesday to Lebanon, the second foreign reporter to do so since a government rocket attack last week killed two of his colleagues and wounded two others.
The fate of the foreign journalists has drawn attention to Homs, which has emerged as a key battleground between government forces and those seeking to end the regime of authoritarian President Bashar Assad.
The government's increasingly bloody attempts to put down the 11-month uprising have fueled mounting international criticism.
The Obama administration summoned Syria's senior envoy in the U.S., Zuheir Jabbour, over the Homs offensive.
The State Department's top diplomat for the Mideast, Jeffrey Feltman, expressed his “outrage over the monthlong campaign of brutality and indiscriminate shelling” in Homs, according to a statement.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told members of Congress on Tuesday that Assad could be considered a war criminal.
U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said Syria had not yet agreed to allow her to into the country. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, called that refusal “shameful.”
“Rather than meeting the needs of its people, the barbaric Syrian government is preparing its final assault on the city of Homs,” Rice said in a statement. “Meanwhile, food shortages are reported to be so severe that people, especially children, will soon start dying of hunger.”
The U.N. estimated that more than 7,500 people have been killed since the anti-Assad struggle started in March 2011, when protesters inspired by successful Arab Spring uprisings against dictators in Tunisia and Egypt took to the streets in Syria. As Assad's forces used deadly force to stop the unrest, protests spread and some Syrians took up arms against the regime.
Activists put the total death toll at more than 8,000, most of them civilians.
Heightening fears of greater carnage, a Syrian official said the government was planning a major offensive against the Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr.
“Baba Amr will be under control complete control in the coming hours and we'll cleanse all the armed elements from the area,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity under government protocols.
Activists reported heavy shelling throughout Homs, raising concern that the government was preparing a ground invasion to take back the city.
Since the first week of February, government forces have showered parts of Homs with daily barrages of mortars, tank shells and rockets. The violence has caused many to flee the city of 1 million people, Syria's third-largest, while those who remain are trapped inside.
Hundreds have been killed in recent weeks, activists said, including residents who foraged for food outside their homes.
“Today has been very scary,” said activist Mulham al-Jundi, speaking from another part of Homs via Skype. “They are still killing in Baba Amr and the water and electricity have been cut to most of the city.”
Homs is about 12 miles (19 kilometers) northeast of the frontier with Lebanon, and cross-border smuggling has been key to the city's survival and to arming the rebels because of the links between Sunnis in northern Lebanon and the Sunni majority in Homs.
“They are killing people who have nothing to do with all this, who have nothing to do with the situation,” said Sheik Moussa, a Sermin resident.