Syrian forces killed 58 civilians Tuesday as they blitzed the city of Homs and a village in Idlib province, monitors said, as the Red Cross sought a truce to deliver aid and the U.N. demanded access for humanitarian workers.
The latest killings came as Russia, a key ally of President Bashar al-Assad, said it will boycott a conference in Tunis this week aimed at seeking political change in Syria.
It also comes ahead of a weekend referendum on a new constitution that could end nearly five decades of rule by Assad’s Baath party.
At least 33 civilians were killed by Syrian forces in the village of Abdita in the northwestern province of Idlib, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
And despite a plea by activists to allow women and children to flee Homs’ besieged Baba Amr neighborhood, more troops were sent to the outskirts of the restive city, with activists expressing fear they were preparing to storm it.
The Observatory said 16 people, including three children, died in “intensive shelling” that targeted Baba Amr, with the Khaldiyeh and Karm al-Zaytoun districts also blasted.
Nine more civilians, including a child, were reportedly killed by gunfire elsewhere in the country.
Homs-based activist Hadi Abdullah of the General Commission of the Syrian Revolution, who had earlier voiced fears of an imminent ground attack against Baba Amr area, told AFP “large reinforcements were heading to Homs.”
Human Rights Watch said it had confirmed the use of Russian-made 240 mm mortars in Homs.
“It is by far the most powerful mortar in modern use -- most other countries stop at 160mm mortars, and a very powerful weapon,” HRW emergency director Peter Bouckaert told AFP.
“We have little doubt that those extremely powerful mortars are being fired by the regime forces into civilian neighborhoods of Homs. We are talking about a 250-pound mortar round that can only be fired from a heavy specialized armored vehicle and it requires a nine person crew to operate,” he added.
Residents say Homs has been under assault for 18 straight days.
In Damascus, the Observatory reported that security forces opened fire on Sunday night to disperse a demonstration in the Al-Hajar Al-Aswad neighborhood, as daring protests spread in the stronghold of Assad’s regime.
Security forces also opened fire to disperse a student protest inside the University of Aleppo, the northern city that until recently been spared anti-regime demonstrations.
And secular groups demonstrated outside parliament in the capital against an article in the draft constitution that would require the president to be a Muslim.
Daily truce of two hours
The International Committee of the Red Cross called for a daily truce of two hours in Syria so it can deliver vital aid to afflicted areas, after saying a day earlier it was in talks with both sides to halt the violence.
“It should last at least two hours every day, so that ICRC staff and Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers have enough time to deliver aid and evacuate the wounded and the sick,” ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger said.
The head of the rebel Free Syrian Army, Colonel Riyadh al-Asaad, welcomed the call but voiced doubts that the “criminal” regime would commit.
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said he was searching for a candidate to name as a humanitarian coordinator for Syria, whose role could evolve into seeking a political solution to the conflict.
Meanwhile, the U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, Valerie Amos, called on Syria to allow aid groups unimpeded access to the country.
“This is a major human rights crisis that is now moving into significant humanitarian consequences,” Amos said after talks with EU aid commissioner Kristalina Georgieva.
Arming the opposition
Top Republican Senator John McCain called again for the outgunned rebels to be supplied with weapons.
Asked about the prospect of arming the rebels, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said: “We don't believe that it makes sense to contribute now to the further militarization of Syria.”
But she added: “That said... if we can't get Assad to yield to the pressure that we are all bringing to bear, we may have to consider additional measures.”
A Friends of Syria meeting in Tunis on Friday will “demonstrate that Assad’s regime is increasingly isolated and that the brave Syrian people need our support and solidarity,” she said on a visit to Mexico.
The meeting “will send a clear message to Russia, China and others who are still unsure about how to handle the increasing violence but are up until now, unfortunately, making the wrong choices,” she added.
Russia announced that it will not take part in the meeting because it was being convened “for the purpose of supporting one side against another in an internal conflict,” the foreign ministry said.