Homs under fire, Syria awaits referendum result

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By Khaled Yacoub Oweis / Reuters

AMMAN: Syrian artillery pummeled rebel-held areas of Homs on Monday before an expected government announcement that a vote – decried as a sham by the opposition and the West – has approved a new constitution proposed by President Bashar Al-Assad.

Shells and rockets crashed into Sunni Muslim districts of Homs that have already endured weeks of bombardment as Assad’s forces, led by officers from his minority Alawite sect, try to stamp out an almost year-long revolt against his 11-year rule.

“Intense shelling started on Khalidiya, Ashira, Bayada, Baba Amro and the old city at dawn,” opposition activist Mohammed Al-Homsi told Reuters from the city on the Damascus-Aleppo highway.

“The army is firing from the main thoroughfares deep into alleyways and side streets. Initial reports indicate at least two people killed in the souk (market) area,” he said.

At least 59 civilians and soldiers were killed on Sunday in a violent backdrop to a referendum on a constitution that offers some reforms, but could keep Assad in power until 2028.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, which has said conditions in parts of Homs are worsening by the hour, has failed to secure a pause in the fighting to allow the wounded to be evacuated and desperately needed aid to be delivered.

The outside world has proved powerless to halt the carnage in Syria, where repression of initially peaceful protests has spawned an armed insurrection by army deserters and others.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin again warned the West against military intervention in Syria, Moscow’s longtime ally, but US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made clear there was no enthusiasm in Washington for war. Russia and China have blocked action against Syria by the UN Security Council.

The Syrian government, which is also backed by Iran, says it is fighting foreign-backed “armed terrorist groups”.

While the West dismisses talk of a Libya-style NATO role to support Assad’s opponents, Gulf Arab states have pushed for a more forceful stance. Saudi Arabia said on Friday it would back the idea of arming rebels – a proposal likely to alarm Moscow.

“I very much hope the United States and other countries … do not try to set a military scenario in motion in Syria without sanction from the UN Security Council,” Putin said.

Clinton told BBC television there was “every possibility” of civil war in Syria. “Outside intervention would not prevent that, it would probably expedite it,” she said.

“We have a very dangerous set of actors in the region: al Qaeda, Hamas and those who are on our terrorist list claiming to support the opposition.

You have many Syrians more worried about what could come next.”

The Syrian government was due to announce the result of the vote on the constitution, which would drop an article making Assad’s Baath party the leader of state and society, allow political pluralism and enact a presidential limit of two seven-year terms. A parliamentary poll would be held in three months.

But the presidential term limit is not retrospective; implying that Assad, 46, already in power since 2000, could serve two further terms after his current one expires in 2014.

Diplomats who toured dozens of polling stations in Damascus reported seeing only a handful of voters at each location.

It was Syria’s third referendum since Assad inherited office from his late father. The first installed him as president in 2000 with an official 97.29 percent ‘Yes’ vote. The second renewed his term seven years later with 97.62 percent in favor.

Syrian Prime Minister Adel Safar, asked about the opposition call for a boycott of the vote, said it showed a lack of interest in dialogue. “There are some groups that have a Western and foreign agenda and do not want reforms in Syria and want to divert Syria’s steadfastness,” he told reporters.

Prominent members of the Syrian National Council formed a splinter group on Sunday, exposing the gravest rift among Assad’s foes since the uprising began in March.

At least 20 secular and Islamist members of the 270-strong council, which was set up in Istanbul last year, announced the formation of the Syrian Patriotic Group.

Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Beirut.



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