BEIRUT — The Syrian army shelled residential areas in the country's third-largest city Wednesday, killing at least one person in a sharp escalation in the government's attempts to crush a popular revolt against President Bashar Assad's autocratic rule, according to activists and witnesses.
Heavy tank fire and gunfire rocked at least three residential neighborhoods in the besieged city of Homs, which has seen some of the largest anti-government demonstrations during the seven-week-long uprising.
"There were loud explosions and gunfire from automatic rifles throughout the night and until this morning," a resident said in a telephone interview, asking that his name not be used for fear of government reprisals.
"The area is totally besieged. We are being shelled."
Activists said at least one person was fatally shot Wednesday, most likely by a sniper, as he was leaving his home in the Bab Amr area. The reports could not be independently confirmed.
At least 750 people have been killed in a crackdown on the unrest, and thousands of Syrians have been detained, with about 9,000 still in custody, said Ammar Qurabi, who heads the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria.
Witnesses have reported the shelling of neighborhoods in recent weeks, but the four-hour siege was the most intense and signaled the government was stepping up its efforts to intimidate the population.
The president has dispatched army troops backed by tanks to Homs and other communities across the country, saying soldiers and security forces are rooting out "armed terrorist groups" and thugs he insists are behind the violence.
Mr. Assad also has announced a series of reforms, widely viewed as symbolic overtures to appease protesters since the movement began in the southern city of Daraa in mid-March and quickly spread nationwide.
Wednesday's shelling targeted the Bab Sbaa, Bab Amr and Jouret el Aris neighborhoods, according to activists in Damascus who were in touch with residents in Homs. The city also is home to one of Syria's two oil refineries.
Syrian television quoted a military official as saying that soldiers and security forces were pursuing "armed terrorist groups" and had arrested several fugitives and seized large quantities of weapons.
The official, who was not identified, said two soldiers were killed and five wounded during confrontations Wednesday.
The regime has come under increasing international pressure to end its crackdown.
Germany, meanwhile, said several European countries were summoning Syrian ambassadors and threatening new sanctions targeting the country's leadership if it doesn't halt the repression of protesters.
The European Union already has decided to impose sanctions on 13 Syrian officials, prohibiting them from traveling anywhere in the 27-nation bloc. But the first round of sanctions does not target Mr. Assad.