Activists: Syrian forces bombard restive city

BASSEM MROUE Associated Press Published:

BEIRUT (AP) -- Government forces shelled the central Syrian city of Homs on Monday, striking a makeshift medical clinic and residential areas and killing at least 17 people in the third day of a new assault on the epicenter of the country's uprising, activists said.

The government denied shelling the city, however, and said "armed terrorist groups" were attacking civilians and police in several neighborhoods.

Homs, which many refer to as "the capital of the Syrian revolution," has become a flashpoint of the nearly 11-month-old uprising against President Bashar Assad. Several neighborhoods in the city, such as Baba Amr, are under the control of rebels.

On Saturday, Syrian forces killed up to 200 people in Homs -- the highest death toll reported for a single day in the uprising -- according to several rights groups. There was no way to independently confirm the toll.

Syria has blocked access to trouble spots in the country and prevented independent reporting, making it nearly impossible to verify accounts from either side as the conflict spirals out of control and turns increasingly violent.

The uprising began with mostly peaceful protests against President Bashar Assad, but government forces responded with a fierce crackdown. Now, army defectors and others are taking up arms to fight back, raising fears of civil war.

The threat of both sides turning to greater force increased Saturday when Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution aimed at ending the bloodshed. Now regime opponents fear that Assad will be emboldened by the feeling he is protected by his top ally Moscow and unleash even greater violence to crush protesters.

China said Monday it was forced to veto a United Nations vote on Syria because it was called before differences in the proposal were bridged, but denied playing spoiler and said it wants to see an end to violence there.

China and Russia have drawn the wrath of the United States, Europe and much of the Arab world for the weekend veto. China says the resolution put undue emphasis on pressuring the Syrian government and prejudged the result of any dialogue between the parties in Syria.

"On the issue of Syria, China is not sheltering anyone nor do we intentionally oppose anyone. We uphold justice and take a responsible attitude," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said Monday.

Also Monday, an explosion ripped through a gas pipeline in Homs, the state-run news agency, SANA, reported. SANA blamed terrorists. The regime says terrorists acting out a foreign conspiracy are behind the uprising, not protesters seeking change.

The Local Coordination Committees activist group said Monday's shelling in Homs hit a makeshift clinic in Baba Amr, causing casualties.

At least 17 people were killed across the city on Monday, according to the LCC and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Omar Shaker, an activist in Baba Amr, said a paramedic was wounded in the shelling of the clinic and two people who were standing outside died instantly. He added that many volunteers at the hospital were wounded as well as people receiving treatment.

"As of 6:30 this morning the shelling intensified with a rate of one shell every two minutes," the man said.

Syria's state-run TV denied government forces were besieging the area, saying activists in the city were setting tires on fire to make it appear as if there was a bombardment.

Syrian security forces are "chasing the terrorists and clashing with them," it said.

On Sunday, the commander of rebel soldiers said force was now the only way to oust Assad, while the regime vowed to press its military crackdown to bring back stability to the country.

"We did not sleep all night," Majd Amer, another activist in Homs, said by telephone. Explosions could be heard in the background. "The regime is committing organized crimes."

Amer said shelling of his neighborhood of Khaldiyeh started at 3 a.m., and most residents living on high floors either fled to shelters or to lower floors. He said electricity was also cut.

___ Bassem Mroue can be reached on twitter at http://twitter.com/bmroue