Syrian artillery pummelled 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. The army is firing from the main thoroughfares deep into alleyways and side streets.
The London-based Syrian Network for Human Rights said seven people had been killed by shellfire in Baba Amro. It said three anti-Assad activists were killed elsewhere in Syria.
Opposition accounts of grim conditions in Homs were echoed by those from other observers, including the Red Cross.
Crowds gathered in the sensitive Damascus district of Kfar Souseh, home to several security agency headquarters, to mourn three young men killed in a protest on Sunday, a witness said.
Only Allah, Syria and freedom they chanted, instead of the officially sanctioned slogan Only Allah, Syria and Bashar.
YouTube footage of the funeral, which could not be verified, showed people shouting We want our prisoners back and, referring to Assad, The blood of the martyrs stains his hands.
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 enable Assad to keep power until 2028.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, which says the plight of civilians in Homs is 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.
We are still in negotiations, ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan said in Geneva. Every hour, every day, makes a difference.
QUEST FOR ACCESS
The relief agency has been pursuing talks with the Syrian authorities and opposition forces for days to secure access to besieged neighbourhoods such as Baba Amro, where local activists say hundreds of wounded need treatment and thousands of civilians are short of water, food and medical supplies.
Four Western journalists are trapped in Baba Amro, two of them wounded. American reporter Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik were killed there on February 22.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he hoped the journalists could be rescued soon. It's very tense, but things are starting to move, it seems, he told RTL radio.
The ICRC and Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers distributed aid supplies in Hama, another restive city under army attack, on Monday for the first time in six weeks, the ICRC spokesman said.
The outside world has proved powerless to halt the killing 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 long-time ally, but U.S. 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 U.N. Security Council.
Clinton's description last week of the Russian and Chinese veto as despicable earned her a reproach from Beijing's foreign ministry that such language was totally unacceptable.
A Chinese newspaper, noting the chaos in Iraq after the U.S. occupation, accused Washington of egotistical super-arrogance.
Sarkozy said, however, that Western powers hoped diplomacy could change minds: We are putting pressure on the Russians first and the Chinese afterwards so that they lift their veto.
You can't continue to massacre a people. The next Syrian government is not up to us but things can't continue like this.
The European Union agreed more sanctions, targeting Syria's central bank and several cabinet ministers, curbing gold trading with state entities and banning cargo flights from the country.
Assad's government says it is fighting foreign-backed armed terrorist groups.
Its close ally Iran spoke up for it at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday, objecting to a move by Qatar to have the forum hold an urgent debate on the situation in Syria. Russia, too, questioned the need for such a debate.
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 backed the idea of arming rebels, a sentiment echoed by Qatar's prime minister on Monday - but 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 U.N. Security Council, said Putin, for whom a strong profile in world affairs should play well in Sunday's presidential election, which he is expected to win comfortably.
But Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, the Qatari premier whose small but rich and internationally active emirate played a part in helping Libya's rebels last year with arms and special forces said it was time to offer Syrians weaponry:
Since we failed in the Security Council to do something, I think we have to try to do something to send enough military help to stop the killing, he said. We should do whatever is necessary to help them, including giving them weapons to defend themselves.
Clinton said on Sunday that there was every possibility of civil war in Syria. Outside intervention would not prevent that. It would probably expedite it, she told the BBC.
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 and 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.
The opposition dismisses the reforms on offer, saying that Assad, and his father who ruled for 30 years before him, have long paid only lip service to existing legal obligations.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the referendum an important step on the path of reforms and criticised as one-sided Friday's Friends of Syria gathering in Tunis at which Western and Arab powers met Syrian opposition leaders.
All sides must end violence, he said: If it is demanded of the government stop operations to fight militants and the militants have no responsibilities, that is unrealistic.
Opponents of Assad have struggled for unity since the uprising began in March. On Sunday, at least 20 secular and Islamist members of the Syrian National Council broke away on Sunday to form the Syrian Patriotic Group.
(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Beirut, Alexei Anishchuk in Moscow, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Chris Buckley in Beijing, Justyna Pawlak in Brussels and Leigh Thomas in Paris; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)