GENEVA // The International Committee of the Red Cross is negotiating with Syrian authorities and opposition fighters for a ceasefire to bring life-saving aid to civilians hardest hit by the conflict.
"The ICRC is exploring several possibilities for delivering urgently needed humanitarian aid," said the ICRC's spokeswoman, Carla Haddad, yesterday.
"These include a cessation of fighting in the most affected areas to facilitate swift Syrian Arab Red Crescent and ICRC access to the people in need."
The move comes as United States senator John McCain yesterday called for countries supporting the rebels to give them weapons.
Diplomatic sources said the Geneva-based ICRC, the only international agency deploying aid workers in Syria, was seeking a two-hour ceasefire in hotspots such as Homs, where opposition strongholds have been under fire for weeks.
The discussions with Syrian authorities and "all those involved in the fighting" remained confidential, Ms Haddad said.
Since the start of the revolt against the president, Bashar Al Assad, almost a year ago, the independent humanitarian agency has been delivering food and medical supplies to civilians in and around the country.
But with the intensified crackdown over several weeks, ambulances of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent have faced greater difficulties in reaching rebel-held areas and evacuating the growing number of wounded, the ICRC says. Some areas face severe food shortages.
More than 9,000 civilians and government security forces have died in the year-long uprising.
Mr McCain yesterday called for an international coalition of nations supporting the opposition to send arms to the rebels.
"There are ways to get weapons into Syria," he said in Cairo, where he and four other senators met Egyptian military and business leaders and newly elected members of parliament.
"It is time that we gave them the wherewithal to fight back and stop the slaughter," said Mr McCain.
He emphasised that he was not in favour of the US directly providing weapons, but said that it could provide medical supplies and "technical assistance", such as global satellite positioning units.
"We have seen in Libya and previous conflicts that there are ways to get weapons to people so that they can defend themselves," he said.
He added that this could be achieved through a "contact group" made up of the Arab League and other nations supporting the opposition to Mr Al Assad. "It is the duty, not the privilege, of nations in the world to come to the assistance of people who are being massacred," Mr McCain said. "For us to sit back and do nothing while people are being slaughtered in the streets of Homs and other cities in Syria is an affront to everything America stands for and believes in."
Syria's military sent tanks and other reinforcements towards Homs yesterday for a possible offensive to break the opposition's grip.
The mobilisation around Homs was an ominous sign that the government was preparing a ground assault after weeks of shelling the district of Baba Amr, which the opposition has dubbed "Syria's Misurata", after the Libyan city where rebels fought off a government siege.
A Syria-based activist, Mustafa Osso, said that Mr Al Assad's military would face stiff battles, with residents planning to fight until "the last person".
He added that Homs faces "savage shelling that does not differentiate between military or civilians targets".
"The human loss is going to be huge if they retake Baba Amr," said Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the British-based activist group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The organisation said at eight people were killed by shelling in parts of Homs yesterday.
Video posted online showed what activists said were shells falling into Baba Amr.
Black smoke billowed from residential areas. Phone lines and internet connections have been cut, making it difficult to get firsthand accounts from Homs residents.
Clashes between government forces and defected soldiers are becoming more frequent and the defectors have taken control of small areas of territory in the north, plus parts of Homs province, which is Syria's largest and stretches from the Lebanon border to Iraq and Jordan.
Syria appears to be careening towards an all-out civil war.
Activists said Mr Al Assad could be trying to subdue Homs - an important stronghold for anti-Assad groups - before a referendum on Sunday on a new constitution.
The charter would allow a bigger role for political opposition to challenge Mr Al Assad's Baath party, which has controlled Syria since a 1963 coup.
But the leaders of the 11-month-old uprising have dismissed the referendum as an attempt at superficial reforms that would not crack the regime's hold on power.
* With additional reporting by Bradley Hope in Cairo and the Associated Press