Syria's opposition yesterday urged Arab League observers monitoring a peace deal to go urgently to Homs as 23 more people died in or near the western city that has become the centre of the revolt against the regime of Bashar Al Assad.
Government forces are "annihilating" civilians in the city and 4,000 soldiers are massing there, said Burhan Ghalioun, the leader of the main opposition group, the Syrian National Council.
"Residents are calling for help and warning of the imminent danger they face if the Arab League does not immediately send its observers there," the council said.
Later Mr Ghaliun claimed that monitors were already in Homs but "cannot go where the authorities do not want them to go", although his claim could not be confirmed.
An advance group of 50 Arab League observers arrived in Syria yesterday to oversee a deal aimed at ending a bloody crackdown on a revolt that has shown no signs of abating since erupting in March.
The mission will eventually include about 150 monitors in teams of 10. Some members of the delegation said they planned to visit Homs tomorrow.
"We are in Damascus now and have started our mission and will head to other cities faster than you think," said General Mustafa Dabi of Sudan, who is leading the mission. "Our Syrian brothers are co-operating very well and without any restrictions so far."
Residents and activists say Homs has been under heavy fire for days, killing dozens.
"Rocket fire and heavy machineguns in the Baba Amro quarter killed at least 14 people and wounded dozens," the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. "The situation is frightening and the shelling is the most intense of the past three days."
Activists said Syrian army tank shells demolished 20 homes in one district of the city, killing about 45 people and wounding 245 in the past five days.
"What's happening is a slaughter," said Fadi, a resident living near the Homs neighbourhood of Baba Amr. He said it was being hit with mortar shells and heavy machinegun fire.
Six civilians died in other parts of the city yesterday and another three, including a 14-year-old boy, were shot dead when security forces opened fire on a demonstration in Khattab in neighbouring Hama province.
"The violence is definitely two-sided," said a Homs resident who named himself only as Mohammed. "I've been seeing ambulances filled with wounded soldiers passing by my window in the past days. They're getting shot somehow."
Parts of Homs are defended by the Free Syrian Army, made up of defectors from the regular armed forces, who say they have tried to establish no-go areas to protect civilians.
Gen Dabi said the Syrian government would be providing transport for the monitoring mission, which may anger the opposition and spark accusations of censorship.
The general, who arrived in Damascus on Saturday, said he had already met the foreign minister and his deputy, and several officials from the armed forces. He warned those watching the mission not to jump to conclusions about the results. "Give us some time, we just got here," he said.
"The element of surprise will be present," said monitor Mohammed Salem Al Kaaby from the UAE.
The Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem said he expects the observers to vindicate his government's contention that the violence is the work of "armed terrorists". Western governments and rights watchdogs blame Mr Al Assad's regime for the bloodshed.
Opposition leaders say Syria agreed to the mission after weeks of prevarication as a ploy to head off a threat by the 22-member League to go to the UN Security Council over the crackdown.
Mr Muallem met the advance team of Arab League officials on Saturday, in talks his spokesman called "positive".
The mission's mandate is to confirm that the Syrian government is executing the Arab League initiative by withdrawing the military from cities, releasing prisoners and allowing Arab and international media to visit.
Syria has barred most foreign journalists since the revolt began, making it hard to verify reports of events on the ground.
The Syrian authorities blame the violence on foreign-backed armed Islamists who they say have killed 2,000 members of the security forces. After six weeks of stalling, Damascus signed a protocol this month to admit the Arab League monitors.
* Reporting by Bloomberg, Reuters and the Associated Press