Syrian army pounds Homs as U.S. warns arms for opposition may help al-Qaeda

Children take part in a protest against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Kafranbel, near Idlib. The words on the paper read: “We demand a constitution to protect us.” (Reuters)

Heavy fighting broke out on Wednesday near the main rebel stronghold of Baba Amro in the city of Homs when Syrian troops began a ground assault, opposition sources said, as the White House meanwhile warned that sending arms to opponents of Assad might help al-Qaeda.

“The army is trying to go in with infantry from the direction of al-Bassel football field and fierce confrontations with automatic rifles and heavy machineguns are taking place there,” activist Mohammad al-Homsi told Reuters from Homs.

As many as 104 people were killed in the shelling of opposition strongholds by Syrian forces on Tuesday, activists told Al Arabiya, including 35 in the Halfaya massacre in Hama and 26 others in another massacre committed by the Syrian forces in Baba Amro district of Homs.

Activists at the Local Coordination Committees told Al Arabiya that the Syrian troops stormed Deraa and launched a wide scale military campaign in Deir Ezzor.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could be classified as a war criminal, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said as the United Nations announced more than 7,500 civilians had been killed by his forces since the start of the revolt.

As world dismay grew over the bloodshed, France said the Security Council was working on a new Syria resolution and urged Russia and China not to veto it, as they have previous drafts, according to Reuters.

Helping al-Qaeda

 Are we supporting al-Qaeda in Syria? Hamas is now supporting the opposition. Are we supporting Hamas in Syria? 
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Meanwhile, the White House said Tuesday that al-Qaeda’s efforts to take advantage of violence in Syria mean it is not time to send arms to opponents of Assad.

“Without getting into assessments of our intelligence capabilities, I would simply say that we are aware of the fact that al-Qaeda and other extremists are seeking to take advantage of the situation created by Assad’s brutal assault on the opposition,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney, according to AFP.

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri recently expressed support for the Syrian rebels.

Carney said al-Qaeda is merely trying to create an image “that they are on the side of greater freedom and democracy for the people of the region -- in this case, of Syria.”

However, the idea that al-Qaeda advocates freedom and democracy is “contrary to their history, their rhetoric, their reason for being,” he said.

Carney acknowledged the United States lacked complete information about al-Qaeda’s activities when he said, “It’s not clear right now the extent to which al-Qaeda extremists are working with the Syrian opposition.”

Applying political pressure to Assad to leave office and to cease the military crackdown on dissidents is a better option than sending in weapons, he said.

“Now is not the time to further militarize the situation in Syria,” Carney said.

Last week, Republican Senator John McCain called for arming Syrian insurgents against Assad regime repression.

Clinton disagreed with McCain’s plea during an interview Sunday with CBS News.

“We really don’t know who it is that would be armed,” Clinton said during a visit to Morocco.

“Are we supporting al-Qaeda in Syria?” she said. “Hamas is now supporting the opposition. Are we supporting Hamas in Syria?”

War criminal

Bashar al-Assad is facing an uphill battle to hang on to power in Syria. (File photo)

In the besieged district of Baba Amro and other parts of Homs, terrified residents were enduring dire conditions, without proper supplies of water, food and medicine, activists said.

A wounded British photographer managed to escape from Homs, but the fate of French reporter Edith Bouvier was not clear.

“There are credible reports that the death toll now often exceeds 100 civilians a day, including many women and children,” U.N. Under-Secretary-General for political affairs Lynn Pascoe told the U.N. Security Council. “The total killed so far is certainly well over 7,500 people.”

Syria’s government said in December that “armed terrorist groups” had killed more than 2,000 soldiers and police.

Asked by a U.S. senator whether Assad could be called a war criminal, Clinton told a Senate hearing: “There would be an argument to be made that he would fit into that category.” She added, however, that using such labels “limits options to persuade leaders to step down from power.”

Russia and China vetoed a draft resolution on Feb. 4 that would have backed an Arab League call for Assad to step down. China indicated a possible shift late on Tuesday when it told the head of the Arab League it supported international efforts to send humanitarian aid to Syria.

But Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi also urged political dialogue in Syria, something ruled out by his opponents, and Russia has warned against interference in Syria's affairs under a humanitarian guise.

Annan on Syria talks

Kofi Annan, the United Nations-Arab League envoy for Syria, said he would hold talks in New York from Wednesday with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and member states on Syria.

Annan, in a statement issued in Geneva where he is based, said he would hold a series of consultations in New York through Friday and then depart for Cairo to meet Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby.

He planned to visit other countries in the region after that, according to the brief statement which did not name the countries or give any other details.

Annan, who served as U.N. Secretary-General from 1997 to 2006, held separate talks in Geneva on Monday with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi and France’s Alain Juppe.

In his first statement on Friday, he called for the full cooperation of all parties to help bring an end to Syria's violence and human rights abuses.

Inciting sectarianism

Syria’s U.N. ambassador in Geneva, Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui, stormed out of the U.N. Human Rights Council after calling on countries to stop “inciting sectarianism and providing arms” to Syrian rebels.

He said foreign sanctions were preventing Damascus from buying medicines and fuel. The European Union imposed additional punitive measures on Tuesday.

British photographer Paul Conroy, of London’s Sunday Times, was spirited safely out of Homs into Lebanon. “He is in good shape and in good spirits,” the newspaper said.

Conroy had been among several foreign journalists trapped in Baba Amro, where Marie Colvin, a veteran war correspondent also with the Sunday Times, and French photographer Remi Ochlik were killed in a bombardment on Feb. 22.

Confusion surrounded Bouvier’s fate. President Nicolas Sarkozy initially said he had been informed that Bouvier had been evacuated, but later said that had not been confirmed.

The latest bombardment of Baba Amro was the heaviest so far, activists said, adding tanks from an elite armored division led by Assad’s brother Maher had moved into Homs overnight.

The reports could not be independently confirmed. Syrian authorities tightly restrict media access to the country.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it had delivered food and other aid to Homs and Idlib, but called for a “humanitarian ceasefire” to improve access.

Assad, projecting an aura of normality in a land ravaged by conflict over his right to power, promulgated a new constitution on Tuesday after officials said nearly 90 percent of voters had endorsed it in a referendum two days earlier. Opposition groups and Western leaders seeking his removal denounced it as a sham.

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