- Associated Press - Friday, February 3, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian forces unleashed a barrage of mortars and artillery on the battered city of Homs for hours before dawn on Saturday, sending terrified residents fleeing into basements and killing more than 200 people in what appeared to be the bloodiest episode in the nearly 11-month-old uprising, activists said.

The government denied the assault. It said the reports are part of a “hysterical campaign” of incitement by armed groups against Syria, meant to be exploited at the U.N. Security Council as it prepares to vote on a draft resolution backing an Arab call for President Bashar Assad to give up power.

With Syria growing increasingly chaotic, Western and Arab countries have stepped up their push for a U.N. resolution to pressure Assad. A vote was scheduled for Saturday, but negotiations were continuing to the last minute as Russia, a strong ally of Syria, signaled it would veto any call for a political transition in the country.

In a blunt warning to Washington, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Saturday that if a resolution is put to a vote without taking Russia’s opinion into account it will only lead to “another scandal” at the Security Council.

Hours after the Homs assault eased, security forces in the Damascus suburb of Daraya opened fire Saturday on a funeral procession for victims of a shooting a day earlier, killing seven people, activists said.

Syrians angered by the deaths in Homs stormed their embassies in Berlin, London, Athens, Cairo and Kuwait city, clashing with guards and police. Protesters in Cairo set fire to part of the embassy building.

There were signs the bombardment in Homs, Syria’s third largest city, was in response to moves by army defectors to solidify their control in several neighborhoods. There were reports that defectors set up new checkpoints in several areas, and two activists from Homs said defectors attacked a military checkpoint in the Khaldiyeh district Thursday night and captured 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 hellish 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,” said Mohammad, a Khaldiyeh resident. “There was nothing that prompted it, not even protests … people are terrified today,” he added by telephone.

Mohammad, who like other Syrians in Homs declined to be further identified, said the shelling started shortly before midnight and lasted until the early morning hours Saturday. He said residents were out Saturday inspecting the damage, looking for relatives. “It’s a catastrophe, no other way to describe it.”

Online video by activists showed chaotic scenes in a makeshift clinic set up in what appeared to be a Khaldiyeh mosque, the room filled with wounded men with gashes and broken limbs being bandaged. Several dead bodies were shown. In another video, fire ravaged a house that had been shelled, as people desperately poured water on the blaze.

The videos could not be independently verified.

Residents said most shelling came from a military installation west of Khaldiyeh and Alawite-dominated neighborhoods to the east. Syria’s Alawite minority, who belong to an offshoot of Shiite Islam, forms the backbone of Assad’s regime and the military leadership.

The government denied the assault and said corpses shown in amateur videos were of people kidnapped by “terrorist armed groups” who filmed them to portray them as victims of the alleged shelling.

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