By ZEINA KARAM
Syrian forces hammered restive neighborhoods in the city of Homs for hours with mortars and artillery before dawn Saturday, sending terrified residents fleeing into basements and killing more than 200 people in the bloodiest episode of the nearly 11-month-old uprising, activists said.
Despite international outrage over the assault, Russia and China vetoed a draft U.N. resolution condemning President Bashar Assad’s crackdown on the uprising and backing Arab calls for Assad to step aside. Western and Arab countries had lobbied until the last minute for Russian backing, but then decided to push for a vote, challenging Moscow to block it.
The Syrian government denied any devastating bombardment took place, saying the high death tolls were part of a “hysterical campaign” of incitement by its opponents to pressure U.N. action.
The veto in the Council underlined what appears to be Assad’s strategy of relying on Russian protection abroad, even as global condemnation stacked up over the bloodshed in Homs, Syria’s third largest city.
“The Assad regime must come to an end,” President Barack Obama said in a statement Saturday, calling on the Security Council to “stand against the Assad regime’s relentless brutality.”
Tunisia decided to expel Syria’s ambassador in response to the “bloody massacre” and no longer recognizes the Assad regime, the president’s office said in a statement. Angry Syrians stormed their embassies in Berlin, London, Athens, Cairo and Kuwait, clashing with guards and police and – in Cairo – setting fire to part of the embassy.
In Homs, thousands attended a funeral ceremony in a city park for about 60 of the victims of the bombardment. Photos posted online by activists showed lines of dozens of coffins and bodies wrapped in white shrouds amid a crowd of mourners.
In the hardest hit district, Khaldiyeh, residents checked on relatives after a night spent in hiding and cleaned streets of shattered glass, debris and bloodstains. Buildings had gaping holes, the facades of some had collapsed inward, and as many as 30 buildings were left uninhabitable by the extent of the damage, said local activist Majd Amer.
Thousands protested across Syria in solidarity in Homs. “Homs, your blood will not go in vain,” read a banner held by a protester a Damascus suburb.
At least 21 people were killed in violence outside Homs on Saturday, including 12 shot when security forces opened fire on a funeral procession for victims of a shooting in the Damascus suburb of Daraya a day earlier, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
There were signs that the bombardment in Homs was in response to moves by army defectors to solidify control in several neighborhoods.
Residents reported that defectors set up new checkpoints in several areas, and two Homs activists said defectors attacked a military checkpoint in the Khaldiyeh district Thursday night, capturing 17 soldiers. The activists spoke on condition of anonymity to protect themselves from retaliation.
If defector activity was the spark, the assault signals a new willingness by the regime to unleash more devastating force against the dissidents. The defectors, part of a force called the Free Syrian Army, have grown increasingly bold in attacks on the military and attempts to take overt control in pro-opposition areas.
Khaldiyeh, a mainly Sunni neighborhood in the mixed city, took the brunt of the assault. Residents described a devastating night of ceaseless shelling that sent them fleeing to lower floors and basements of buildings.
“We were sitting at home and the mortars just started slamming into buildings around us,” Mohammad, a Khaldiyeh resident, said by telephone. “There was nothing that prompted it, not even protests … people are terrified today.”
Mohammad, who like other Syrians in Homs declined to be further identified, said the shelling started shortly before midnight and lasted until early Saturday. He said residents were inspecting the damage Saturday, looking for relatives. “It’s a catastrophe, no other way to describe it,” he said.