Family massacre in the siege of Homs
BEIRUT // Twenty members of three families were shot dead in Homs yesterday as government forces stepped up their assault on the besieged city.
Women and children as young as 5 were among the victims, according to opposition activists.
The dead, from the Ghantawi, Terkawi and Zamel families, were all killed by pro-regime forces inside their homes in the neighbourhoods of Karm El Zeytoun and Naziheen, said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Another activist based in Homs, Hadi Abdullah, said the victims all had their throats slit. The reports could not be verified.
Security forces have bombarded Syria's third largest city for five days with tank, mortar and artillery fire. Opposition activists Thesay hundreds have been killed in the assault on the city, a focal point of protests calling for the toppling of the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad.
The government claims the city is under attack from "armed terrorist groups". The state news agency, Sana, reported yesterday that a booby-trapped car was blown up in the Homs neighbourhood of Al Bayyada, causing an unspecified number of civilian and security force casualties.
Sana also said the armed groups were using mortars to shell various neighbourhoods, Al Baath University and the city's oil refinery.
Opposition activists said hospitals in Homs were unable to cope with the number of injured, but Sana said medical facilities were functioning normally and there was no shortage of medical supplies.
The United Nations human-rights chief Navi Pillay said she was appalled by the Syrian government's "wilful assault" on Homs, and the use of heavy weapons against civilian parts of the city.
"The failure of the Security Council to agree on firm collective action appears to have fuelled the Syrian government's readiness to massacre its own people in an effort to crush dissent," she said.
Ms Pillay said it was vital for "the international community to cut through the politics and take effective action to protect the Syrian population".
Turkey's foreign minister announced plans yesterday for an international conference of key leaders to try to solve the crisis.
"We are determined to establish a broad-based forum to promote international understanding with all countries concerned," Ahmet Davutoglu said. The meeting should happen as soon as possible, possibly in Turkey, but definitely in the region, he said.
The foreign minister, who is due to travel to the US for talks, said Turkey had been trying to formulate a "new road map" on how to deal with the crisis.
Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was due to speak yesterday with the Russian president Dimitri Medvedev, just days after Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution aimed at stopping the violence in which more than 7,000 are estimated to have died since protests began last March.
Following the widely criticised veto, the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov travelled to Damascus on Tuesday, where he met Mr Al Assad.
Mr Lavrov said he was assured by the president that the violence would be stopped, political reforms stepped up and dialogue started with the opposition.
Also on Tuesday, the UAE and other GCC states expelled Syria's ambassadors in protest at the continued brutal use of force.
As international condemnation of the Syrian regime mounts, the European Union is considering harsher sanctions against Damascus.
An EU official said yesterday the new measures may include bans on commercial flights between Syria and Europe and on financial transactions with the country's central bank. Fresh sanctions targeting the Al Assad regime could be adopted at a meeting of EU foreign ministers on February 27.
European officials are also said to be preparing for the possibility of evacuating thousands of EU citizens from Syria.
* With additional reports by Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press