Syrian army pounds Homs as Annan heads to Russia
DAMASCUS - The army resumed shelling the central Syrian protest cities of Homs and Hama on Saturday, monitors reported, as international envoy Kofi Annan headed to Russia in the latest push for peace.
Mortar shells rained down on the flashpoint Khaldiyeh district of Homs continuously for two hours in the morning, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, adding that it had no information about casualties.
Security forces also pressed ahead with a siege of Hama which they began two weeks ago, the Britain-based Observatory said.
At least 33 people were killed in violence nationwide on Friday, including nine civilians who died in parts of Homs hit by gunfire and rockets, it said.
The bloodshed came as thousands of people staged anti-regime protests in hot spots across Syria and the European Union slapped sanctions on the wife of embattled President Bashar al-Assad, Asma.
As they staged rallies under the slogan of "Damascus, here we come," eight people were wounded in the capital's Kfar Sousa district when security forces opened fire to disperse protesters, the monitoring group said.
Adding to the pressure on Assad, at least four brigadier generals defected in recent weeks, experts told a UN rights commission, saying this showed a growing number of ranking officials are abandoning his regime.
Investigators also had "harrowing" accounts of refugees fleeing the strife in Syria, where monitoring groups say more than 9,100 people have been killed in the brutal crackdown on the year-old protest movement.
The European Union on Friday slapped sanctions on Assad's glamorous British-born wife.
Diplomats in Brussels said EU foreign ministers had agreed an assets freeze and travel ban on "Assad's wife, mother, sister and sister-in-law," and eight other entourage members.
Asma Assad, whose parents live in Britain where she grew up, cannot be barred entry to the country but is not expected "to try to travel to the United Kingdom at the moment," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said.
Assad himself was targeted last May 10, along with his younger brother Maher and four cousins.
Washington welcomed the EU decision.
"We are gratified that the EU has taken yet another step in tightening the noose on the Assad regime," US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that Syrians in the United States would be allowed to stay beyond their visas and avoid the risk of returning to their strife-torn country.
Meanwhile, UN-Arab League envoy Annan heads to Moscow on Saturday to gauge how far Russia is willing to push its key Arab ally after it finally joined a UN call on regime forces to pull back from protest cities.
Annan will meet President Dmitry Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Sunday before flying to China, the other UN Security Council member resisting global efforts to condemn Assad.
The special envoy will be carrying with him Assad's answer to a peace plan under which Syria could begin a "political transition" to a representative government, with no specifically defined role for the Syrian leader.
Moscow backed Wednesday's non-binding Security Council statement in support of the initiative only after making sure it contained no implicit threat of further action should Assad fail to comply.
Washington's UN ambassador Susan Rice admitted the UN call represented only "a modest step" towards ending the conflict.
But it came amid growing signs that Moscow was beginning to lose patience with Assad, despite his commitment to massive new Russian arms purchases and the granting of key naval access to the Mediterranean Sea.
A top Kremlin-linked lawmaker said Assad should treat the UN statement as "an insistent recommendation" whose implementation would determine the future course of relations between the two countries.
"Assad has to take the first step: he must pull the Syrian army out of large cities," the lower house of parliament's foreign affairs chief Mikhail Margelov said on Thursday.
"Russia's future position on the conflict will depend on how successfully (the Syrian government) complies with the provisions spelled out in the Security Council statement," Margelov said.
But analysts have warned that Russian interests in Syria are too important for it to allow Western and regional powers to independently dictate the battle-scarred nation's fate.
Russia not only sells billions of dollars in arms to Syria but also relies on Damascus to lobby its interests in a region where Moscow has lost much of its influence in recent years.