Homs under fire, 89 percent approve Syrian constitution
People burn portraits of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad during a popular demonstration against his regime in the outskirts of Idlib, northern Syria. (Photo: Reuters)
Syrian artillery pummeled rebel-held areas of Homs on Monday as state television said that around 89 percent of Syrians approved a new constitution, proposed by President Bashar al-Assad, in a referendum on Sunday.
Constitutional reforms are aimed at quelling the growing rebellion against the Assad family's 42 years in power, but Assad's opponents and the West have the dismissed the reforms and the referendum as a sham. Turnout in the referendum was 57.4 percent, state television said. Shells and rockets crashed into Sunni Muslim districts of Homs that have already endured weeks of bombardment as Assad's forces, led by officers from his minority Alawite sect, try to stamp out an almost year-long revolt against his 11-year rule.
“Intense shelling started on Khalidiya, Ashira, Bayada, Baba Amr and the old city at dawn,” opposition activist Mohammed al-Homsi told Reuters from the city on the Damascus-Aleppo highway. “The army is firing from the main thoroughfares deep into alleyways and side streets. Initial reports indicate at least two people killed in the souk area,” he said.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said later at least seven people had been killed by shellfire in Baba Amr. The accounts of opposition activists were echoed by those from other observers, including the Red Cross.
At least 59 civilians and soldiers were killed on Sunday in a violent backdrop to a referendum on a constitution that offers some reforms, but could enable Assad to keep power until 2028.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, which has said conditions in parts of Homs are worsening by the hour, hasfailed to secure a pause in the fighting to allow the wounded to be evacuated and desperately needed aid to be delivered. “We are still in negotiations. Since the beginning, the objective has been to go in and evacuate people and bring in assistance. Every hour, every day makes a difference,” ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan said in Geneva.
Quest for access
The relief agency has been pursuing talks with the Syrian authorities and opposition forces for days to secure access to besieged neighborhoods such as Baba Amr, where local activists say hundreds of wounded need treatment and thousands of civilians are short of water, food and medical supplies.
Four Western journalists are trapped in Baba Amr, two of them wounded. American reporter Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik were killed there on Feb. 22.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he hoped the journalists could be rescued soon. “It’s very tense, but things are starting to move, it seems,” he told RTL radio.
The ICRC evacuated 27 people, seven of whom were badly wounded, from Baba Amr on Friday. The ICRC and Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers distributed aid supplies in Hama, another restive city under army attack, on Monday for the first time in six weeks, the ICRC spokesman said. The outside world has proved powerless to halt the carnage in Syria, where repression of initially peaceful protests has spawned an armed insurrection by army deserters and others.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin again warned the West against military intervention in Syria, Moscow’s long-time ally, but US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made clear there was no enthusiasm in Washington for war. Russia and China have blocked action against Syria by the UN Security Council.
There were signs of rhetorical escalation in the international confrontation over Syria -- Clinton’s description last week of the Russian and Chinese veto as “despicable” earned her a reproach from Beijing’s foreign ministry that such language was “totally unacceptable.”