Syrian forces bombarded Homs on Monday, killing 50 people in a sustained assault on several districts of the city which has become a centre of armed opposition to President Bashar Assad, the Syrian National Council opposition group said.
"The tally that we have received from various activists in Homs since the shelling started at six this morning is 50, mostly civilians," the group's Catherine al-Talli told Reuters.
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"The regime is acting as if it were immune to international intervention and has a free hand to use violence against the people," she said.
The head of the Arab League said on Monday the Syrian army's use of heavy weapons against civilians was an escalation that edged the country towards civil war.
"We follow with great anxiety and irritation developments in the field situation in Syria, and the escalation of military operations in the city of Homs and rural areas of Damascus, and the Syrian armed forces' use of heavy weapons against civilians," Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby said in a statement.
In the statement published by the Egyptian state news agency, Elaraby said the escalation took the crisis in Syria in "a serious direction", adding that it pushed "conditions towards a slide towards civil war".
Syrian army defectors announced they were organizing a new "Higher Revolutionary Council" to supersede the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as the main armed force battling Assad's rule. The new body would be commanded by General Ahmed al-Sheikh, the highest-ranking officer to defect to Turkey from government forces.
Mass burial in Homs after Saturday attack (Photo: Reuters)
The bombardment came a day after the United States promised harsher sanctions against Damascus in response to Russian and Chinese vetoes of a draft UN resolution that would have backed an Arab plan urging Assad to step aside.
"This is the most violent bombardment in recent days," said one activist in Syria who was in touch with Homs residents. Another activist said forces loyal to President Assad were using multiple rocket launchers in the attack.
Arab satellite television stations broadcast live footage from Homs. Explosions could be heard and smoke was seen rising from some buildings.
Homs on Monday morning
Activists said more than 200 people were killed on Friday night when tanks and artillery blasted the Khalidiya neighbourhood of Homs, a turbulent city that has become a centre of resistance to Assad's rule.
The latest assault, which began shortly after 2 am (midnight GMT) on Monday, appeared to be more widely targeted, with explosions in Khalidiya, Baba Amro, Bayada and Bab Dreib neighbourhoods, the activists said.
Fifteen people were killed in Baba Amro and 150 wounded, one resident said by telephone. "They want to drive the Free Syrian Army out," said Hussein Nader, referring to the rebel force of army deserters and gunmen who have controlled parts of the city for months.
"Rockets are falling seconds apart on the same target."
Activists also said Zabadani, a town north-west of Damascus near the Lebanese border which has been largely under the control of Assad's opponents for several weeks, had come under fire on Monday.
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