Armoured forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad killed at least 47 civilians as they thrust into Homs on Wednesday, firing rockets and mortar rounds to subdue opposition districts, activists said, a day after Russia said Assad wants peace.
Tanks entered the Inshaat neighbourhood and moved closer to Bab Amro district in the central Syrian city, which has been the target of the heaviest barrages by loyalist troops that have killed at least 150 people in the last two day, activists in the city and opposition sources said.
Electricity returned briefly and we were able to contact various neighbourhoods because activists there managed to recharge their phones. We counted 47 killed since midnight, activist Mohammad Hassan said by satellite phone.
Hassan said bombardment intensified in the early morning, concentrating on Bab Amro, al-Bayada, al-Khalidiya and Wadi al-Arab -- Sunni Muslim neighbourhoods in the mixed city that have risen up against the 11 year rule of Assad, from Syria's minority Alawite community, which has dominated the majority Sunni country for the last five decades.
Mortar and rocket fires have subsided, but heavy machineguns and anti-aircraft guns are still strong...tanks are in main thoroughfares in the city and appear poised to push deep into residential areas, he added.
The attacks on Homs continued despite Russia winning a promise from Assad to bring an end to bloodshed, while Western and Arab states acted to further isolate Assad following the onslaught on the city, one of the bloodiest of the 11-month uprising.
The reports could not be independently verified because Syrian authorities have placed tight restrictions on access to the country by Western media.
The official state news agency said armed terrorist groups attacked police roadblocks in Homs and fired mortar bombs at the city, with three falling on the Homs oil refinery, one of two in the country. It gave no details of any damage.
Assad is seeing the civilised world turn against him and he thinks he will win if he uses more brutal force before the world could act, said Catherine al-Talli, senior member of the opposition National Council.
The attack on Homs has intensified Western and regional diplomatic pressure on Assad, who was training as an ophthalmologist in London before his father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, anointed him as his successor when another brother who was being groomed for president died.
Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd on Wednesday called in Syria's top diplomat, charge d'affaires Jawdat Ali, telling him Syria's regime had lost its legitimacy and it was time for Assad to step down.
Our message to the Syrian government is clear - Assad must find an exit strategy before the situation in Syria degenerates further and more lives are lost, Rudd said in a statement.
Rudd said on Tuesday that Australia had imposed new travel bans and financial sanctions on a further 75 people in Syria and 27 entities.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of Russia, one of Syria's few remaining allies, said on a trip to Damascus on Tuesday that both countries wanted to revive a monitoring effort by the Arab League, whose plan to resolve Syria's crisis was vetoed by Moscow and Beijing in the U.N. Security Council.
Lavrov - whose government wields unique leverage as a major arms supplier with longstanding political ties to Damascus, and maintains a naval facility on its coast - told Assad that peace was in Russia's interests.
But there was no indication from Lavrov's comments that the issue of Assad eventually giving up power - a central element of the Arab proposal that failed in the U.N. - had been raised.
Assad said he would cooperate with any plan that stabilised Syria, but made clear that only included an earlier Arab League proposal that called for dialogue, release of prisoners and withdrawing the army from protest centres.
Walid al-Bunni, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the opposition Syrian National Council, said Lavrov had brought no new initiative and so-called reforms promised by Assad were not enough.
The crimes that have been committed have left no room for Bashar al-Assad to remain ruler of Syria, he told Reuters.
Russia's mediation also failed to slow a rush by countries that had denounced the Russian-Chinese veto to corner Syria diplomatically and cripple Assad with sanctions in hopes of toppling him.
Tank bombardment also was reported on Zabadani, a town of 20,000 people 30 kms (19 miles) northwest of Damascus. The town is nestled in the foothills of mountains separating Syria from Lebanon, where armed resistance to Assad's rule has been among the fiercest in the country of 21 million.
Two people were killed in the bombardment on Tuesday, bringing the total killed in Zabadani in the past two days to at least 10, activists said. State media said four specialist forces were killed in the Zabadani Plain in Damascus countryside... and the clash resulted in the killing of a number of terrorists.
An estimated 150 tanks and thousands of troops launched an offensive on Zabadani last week following a withdrawal by Assad's forces last month as a result of a truce reached by Assad's brother-in-law and town notables.
Opposition leaders say the bloodshed means it is too late for Assad to offer compromises and it is time to dismantle the 50-year-old police state dominated by members of his Alawite sect that keeps him in power.
It is impossible for Assad to govern after bombarding his own cities and towns. He is escalating the use of his military might either to sink Syria into chaos or to improve his negotiating position, opposition leader-in-exile Kamal al-Labwani told Reuters.
Militarily he cannot win. The bombardment has killed mainly civilians. The fighters in Homs and other cities have been slipping away but they will be back. Assad's forces can enter Bab Amro or Zabadani, but they cannot stay there long before receiving painful hits, he added.
Labwani said Moscow will either mediate a transitional military council to replace Assad, similar to the way President Hosni Mubarak gave up power in Egypt, or help Assad set up a coastal enclave for his minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam in the majority Sunni Muslim country.
The offensive on Homs and Zabadni followed attacks to regain suburbs of Damascus last week that had fallen under opposition control after months of mass demonstrations against Assad's rule and repeated military incursions that failed to put them down.
We're under occupation. The army has been looting shops and houses and stealing even mattresses. They have cut electricity and telephones for 10 days now, Water and fuel are scarce. Anyone who ventures in the street after 6 p.m. risks being shot on the spot, said Amer Faqih, an activist in the Damascus suburb of Harasta.
Despite the crackdown, activists reported demonstrations against Assad's rule throughout the country, including the southern province of Sweida, home to a large proportion of Syria's minority Druze population, another offshoot of Islam that has stayed largely neutral in the uprising.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) said its members were recalling their ambassadors from Damascus and expelling Syrian envoys from their own capitals, in response to surging violence.
(Editing by Michael Roddy)