Syrian forces renewed their bombardment of Homs on Tuesday as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Damascus for talks aimed at pressing President Bashar al-Assad to end a bloody crackdown on a popular revolt and carry out reforms.
Activists said the fresh assault on Homs came after 95 people were killed on Monday in the city of one million people, a hub of protest and armed opposition against Assad. More than 200 were reported killed there on Friday night.
The bombardment is again concentrating on Baba Amro (district of Homs). A doctor tried to get in there this morning but I heard he was wounded, Mohammad al-Hassan, an activist in Homs, told Reuters by satellite phone. There is no electricity and all communication with the neighbourhood has been cut.
Authorities say the military is fighting terrorists in Homs bent on dividing and sabotaging the country. State media said tens of terrorists and six members of the security forces were killed in clashes there on Monday.
Lavrov and Russian Foreign Intelligence Service chief Mikhail Fradkov arrived in Damascus to meet Assad, the foreign ministry in Moscow said, three days after a Russian-Chinese veto of an Arab-backed U.N. resolution on Syria caused outrage.
Moscow and Beijing were the only members of the 15-member U.N. Security Council to vote against the resolution backing an Arab League call for Assad to yield power and start a political transition. The double veto prompted unusually undiplomatic Western criticism, which Lavrov said verged on hysteria.
At Tuesday's talks, Russia could wield rare leverage with Syrian officials thanks to longtime political and military ties.
Russia's foreign ministry said Lavrov and Fradkov went to Damascus because Moscow sought the swiftest stabilisation of the situation in Syria on the basis of the swiftest implementation of democratic reforms whose time has come.
Syrian state television showed hundreds of people gathering on a main Damascus highway to welcome Lavrov. They were waving Syrian, Russian and Hezbollah flags and held up two Russian flags made out of hundreds of red, white and blue balloons.
Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby told Reuters he spoke to Lavrov on Monday and said the foreign minister would present an initiative to Damascus. Asked if he thought it could end the crisis, he replied: They believe so.
Russia, seeking to retain a foothold in the Middle East centred on its strategic ties with Damascus, may be torn between trying to shore up Assad and seeking his exit. It also could take a middle path, trying to buy time by counselling the government to make some concessions and reduce the bloodshed.
I think that now, after Russia imposed a veto, Lavrov (is) travelling to tell Assad that we did everything possible, said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs.
Now the main task for Lavrov is to tell Assad that if there is no visible change in Syria, then regardless of the Russian position he should be bracing for external military measures, Lukyanov said.
Russia argued that Saturday's draft U.N. resolution was one-sided and would have amounted to taking the side of Assad's opponents in a civil war. China's veto of the measure followed Russia's lead, analysts and diplomats said.
Catherine al-Talli, a senior member of the opposition Syrian National Council, said the military assault on Homs appeared to be designed to show Moscow that Assad was in control and could serve until his term expires in 2014.
Assad needs to look strong in front of the Russians. He has not managed to control Homs since the eruption of the uprising (11 months ago) and now that he has seen that he faces no real threat from the international community, it appears that he wants to finish off the city, Talli said.
U.S. CLOSES EMBASSY
Assad has pledged political reforms including a new constitution followed by a parliamentary election, but has also pledged to crush terrorists he blames for the violence.
Syria's opposition, which rejected a Russian invitation for talks with Syrian officials in Moscow, says Assad's promises of reforms have been discredited by his continued crackdown on protests, in which the U.N. says 5,000 people have been killed.
The United States shut its embassy and said all staff had left Syria due to worsening security in the country, which has also been hit by suicide bombings in Damascus.
Belgium and Britain recalled their ambassadors from Syria, and London said it would seek further European Union sanctions against the country. Japan said it was considering reducing the number of its diplomatic staff in Damascus.
U.S. President Barack Obama said that, however hard Western countries are prepared to lean on Assad diplomatically, they still had no intention of using force to topple him, as they did against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya last year.
I think it is very important for us to try to resolve this without recourse to outside military intervention. And I think that's possible, he told NBC's Today show.
A chorus of European officials condemned Russia and China over their double veto in terms unusually harsh by diplomatic norms and said they would bear responsibility for future bloodshed. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the veto a travesty.
Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim, who heads the Arab League's ministerial committee on the Syrian crisis, told Al Jazeera he was shocked by Moscow and Beijing's decision and called for clear steps to stop the bloodbath in Syria.
Clinton said on Sunday the United States would work with other nations to try to tighten sanctions against Assad's government and deny it arms in the absence of a U.N. resolution.
(Additional reporting by Joseph Logan in Beirut, Gleb Bryanski and Steve Gutterman in Moscow; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Mark Heinrich)