Assad regime declares 'war' on Hama: Heavy weapons to suppress dissent
DAMASCUS – Syrian regime troops reportedly pounded the protest hub of Hama as Russia said Wednesday it would consider "constructive proposals" to end bloodshed in Syria but was opposed to force or sanctions.
Activists said the Assad regime's security forces were pounding the central protest city of Hama for the second straight day on Wednesday.
"The Syrian army is bombarding Hama with heavy weapons, using rocket-propelled grenades," said a statement from the Local Coordination Committees, which organises anti-regime protests on the ground.
"The 'shabiha' (regime militiamen) and security agents backed up by tanks are pounding all parts of the Bab Qibli neighbourhood," said the LCC.
"There will be dead and wounded. Houses have collapsed," it said, adding about 4,000 soldiers supported by tanks were in the rebel town 210 kilometres (130 miles) north of Damascus.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which said there was at least one dead in Hama, said 33 civilians were killed by fire from the security forces nationwide on Tuesday, 23 of them in the central province of Homs.
It reported another 19 dead in Homs city after two bombarded buildings collapsed and burned.
Syria's Al-Watan newspaper, which is close to the authorities, said on Wednesday the military had launched an offensive aimed at retaking several districts in Hama that were controlled by insurgents.
"The competent authorities have decided to resolve the matter in a definitive manner in order to relieve the city of armed militias," it said.
Meanwhile, on the diplomatic front, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, "We are open to constructive proposals that go in line with the set task of ending violence".
Lavrov said any UN Security Council resolution backed by Russia "must firmly record that it cannot be used or interpreted to justify anyone's outside military intervention in the Syria crisis."
His comments came after Russian and US officials held talks in Moscow on how to stop the violence in Syria, which the United Nations estimates has killed more than 5,400 people since it erupted in mid-March.
Russia and China both blocked a previous Western attempt to have the Security Council formally condemn Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown on dissent and impose stiff sanctions if he refuses to enter direct talks.
According to diplomats at the United Nations, European and Arab nations are in the process of hammering out a Security Council draft resolution condemning the crackdown.
Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Muallem on Tuesday warned against foreign "interference," which he said Russia, a Cold War ally with a naval base at Tartus on the country's Mediterranean coast, would never accept.
Muallem said Damascus had no choice but to confront armed groups the government blames for the violence.
He also delivered a stinging attack on the Arab League after its weekend call for Assad to hand over power to his deputy and clear the way for a unity government within two months.
"Enough of the Arab solutions from now," he said on Tuesday, accusing the Arabs of "plotting" to internationalise the crisis and taking decisions in the knowledge Damascus would reject them.
"We do not want Arab solutions," he said.
Western governments have capitalised on the Arab League's tough new stance to launch another drive for UN Security Council action despite previous efforts being blocked by Beijing and Moscow.
According to diplomats, European and Arab nations want a vote next week on a resolution condemning the Syrian crackdown and hinting at sanctions against Assad's regime.
Britain, France, Germany and Arab nations were working on the resolution that would call on all UN member states to follow Arab League sanctions, they said, adding there could be a vote as early as next Monday or Tuesday.
A first draft of the new resolution notes Arab League sanctions ordered against Syria and "encourages all states to adopt similar steps and fully to cooperate with the League of Arab States in the implementation of its measures."
Moscow and Beijing vetoed a previous European attempt in October to get a resolution passed condemning Assad for the violence.
Lavrov made it clear on Wednesday that any resolution hinting of sanctions would also be opposed by Moscow.
"We will not be able to back proposals under which unilaterally imposed sanctions against Syria -- sanctions that were declared without any consultations with Russia or China ... are blessed retroactively," he said.
Syria's official SANA news agency said on Tuesday Muallem had written to Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi telling him Damascus agreed to extend the observer mission for one month, until February 23.
The decision came after the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council withdrew its monitors and called on "members of the UN Security Council... to take all needed measures to press Syria to implement the Arab League decisions."
Damascus signed up to a League peace plan last year that calls for the withdrawal of troops from population centres, the protection of civilians, the release of detainees and the opening of negotiations with the opposition.
But critics say there has been little tangible progress.