BEIRUT: Syrian security forces pounded opposition areas across the country yesterday, activists said, adding that at least 23 people had been killed in clashes they say have escalated since international observers suspended their mission.
Activists said artillery had targeted Douma, a town 15 km outside the capital Damascus. The town has for weeks been under the partial control of rebels who have joined the 15-month-old revolt against President Bashar Assad.
“We can’t even accurately count the dead because we have so many injured people to treat, there’s no time to think about anything else,” said an activist in Douma who called himself Ziad. “The army attacks all the time. They have tanks, missiles, mortars, and artillery. Even helicopters have fired on us. People can’t escape because the army is surrounding the town.”
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists across Syria, said at least 23 people had been killed by midday yesterday, seven of them in Douma. In a sign it fears Syria’s conflict could escalate further, an unnamed Russian naval source said Moscow was preparing to send marines to Syria in the event it needed to protect personnel and remove equipment from its naval facility in Syria’s Mediterranean port of Tartous, according to the Interfax news agency.
Russia is one of the Syrian government’s staunchest backers and supports Assad’s argument that foreign-backed terrorists are behind the unrest. Moscow has repeatedly urged Western and Arab countries, who mostly back the rebels, to rein in their support in order to stem the violence. International outrage over Syria has grown in recent weeks after two reported massacres of nearly two hundred civilians.
Heavier fighting and apparent sectarian killings have led many, including the head of UN peacekeeping forces, to brand the violence a civil war.
The international community’s efforts to halt the violence are deadlocked because Russia and China, which both wield vetoes in the Security Council, have blocked tougher action against Assad. They say the solution should be through political dialogue, an approach most of the Syrian opposition rejects.
Western powers have been pushing for stronger measures to be taken against Assad, whose forces have not only used artillery in recent weeks, but helicopter gunships against rebels in civilian areas.
US President Barack Obama is expected to discuss the Syria crisis with Russian President Vladimir Putin when they meet in Mexico. But few observers expect a breakthrough.
Relations between Washington and Moscow have further frayed after a week of Cold War-style recriminations over Syria.
The head of the United Nations observation mission, General Robert Mood, is scheduled on Tuesday to brief the UN Security Council in New York on the violence in Syria.
The mission recently halted its operations due to security concerns, and Mood said on Sunday he was worried about civilians trapped in central Homs.
“In Homs attempts to extract civilians form the line of fire over the past week have been unsuccessful,” he said in a statement. “This requires willingness on both sides (of the conflict) to respect and protect the human life of the Syrian people.”