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Syrian troops bomb rebel-held neighborhood in Homs

- Associated Press - Friday, June 8, 2012

BEIRUT — Syrian troops on Friday shelled a rebel-held neighborhood in the flashpoint central city of Homs as President Bashar Assad's troops appeared to be readying to storm the area that has been out of government control for months, activists said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees had no immediate word on casualties from the shelling of Hom's Khaldiyeh neighborhood. Amateur videos posted online showed a small white plane, apparently a drone, flying over Homs.

Homs has been one of the hardest hit regions in Syria since the uprising against Assad's regime began in March last year. The U.N. said several weeks ago that more than 9,000 people have been killed since the crisis began while activists put the number of dead at about 13,000.

Friday's violence came two days after reports of mass killing in the nearby province of Hama where about 80 people, including women and children, were shot or stabbed. U.N. observers came under fire Thursday as they tried to reach the site in Mazraat al-Qubair, a small farming community of 160 people, mostly Bedouins.

In Geneva, International Committee of the Red Cross spokesman Hicham Hassan told reporters Friday that the humanitarian situation in Syria was worsening.

"Currently the situation is extremely tense, not only in Houla, not only in Hama, but in many, many places around the country," he said referring to the string of villages known as Houla, where more than 100 people were massacred last month. The Opposition and the regime blamed each other for the Houla massacre.

Hassan cited the countryside of the northern city of Idlib, suburbs of the capital Damascus, the eastern province of Deir el-Zour and the coastal region of Latakia as those targeted in the latest attacks

The ICRC wants to help 1.5 million people, some of whom need basic assistance such as bread. Hassan said many are also worried about people they have left behind adding that most of the people who fled from Taldaw, a village in the Houla region, were women and children.

"They don't know what happened to the people who remained," he said.

Also Friday, the opposition called for anti-government protests after the weekly noon prayers.

It was still not clear if observers have entered Mazraat al-Qubair, where activists said dozens of people, including women and children, were killed on Wednesday. A team that tried to reach the area on Thursday was shot at.

Activists said the Sunni village is surrounded by Alawite villages. Alawites are an offshoot of Shiite Islam and Assad is a member of the sect, while the opposition is dominated by Sunnis.

A government statement Thursday on the state-run news agency SANA said "an armed terrorist group committed an appalling crime" in Mazraat al-Qubair, killing nine women and children. It said residents appealed for protection from Hama authorities, who sent security forces who went to the farm, stormed a hideout of the group and clashed with its fighters.

As reports emerged about the Mazraat al-Qubair, that would be the fourth such mass slaying of civilians in Syria in the last two weeks, the United States condemned Assad, saying he has "doubled down on his brutality and duplicity."

U.N. patrols in Syria have on several instances been deliberately targeted with heavy weapons, armor-piercing ammunition and a surveillance drone, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council, according to a senior U.N. official. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because Thursday's council meeting was private, said Ban also reported repeated incidents of firing close to U.N. patrols, apparently to get them to withdraw.

International envoy Kofi Annan, whose peace plan brokered in April has not been implemented, warned against allowing "mass killings to become part of everyday reality in Syria."

"If things do not change, the future is likely to be one of brutal repression, massacres, sectarian violence, and even all-out civil war," Annan told the U.N. General Assembly in New York. "All Syrians will lose."

U.N. diplomats said Annan was proposing that world powers and key regional players, including Iran, come up with a new strategy to end the 15-month conflict at a closed meeting of the Security Council that took place Thursday.

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