Troops and militiamen loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad moved into a residential district of Homs overnight Monday after six days of tank bombardment that killed scores of people in the hotbed of unrest, residents and activists said.
Six civilians, including two women and an eight-year-old, were killed elsewhere in the city, Syria's third largest, and its rural environs, they said, in a military crackdown to suppress protests and an emerging insurgency against Assad.
At least 100 people were killed in Homs last week, mostly from tank fire into the Bab Amro district, the Syrian human rights organisation Sawasiah said, amid a growing Arab and Western outcry over rising casualties.
The government says it is fighting armed gangs. Events in Syria are difficult to verify independently because the government has barred most foreign journalists.
They are now storming houses and arresting people.... The shabbiha (pro-Assad militia) have brought pick-up trucks and are looting buildings, Raed Ahmad, one of the activists, said by telephone from Homs. He said most residents had fled Bab Amro.
Qatar's prime minister has called for Arab states to meet next Saturday to address Syria's failure to implement a deal struck with the Arab League last week to end its offensive.
Under the agreement, Syria was supposed to pull its military out of restive cities, set free political prisoners and start talks with the opposition, which seeks Assad's removal and more democratic freedoms, within two weeks.
The regime wants everything to look spic and span for the Arab League. They even started painting army troop carriers police blue and the shabbiha are wearing brand new police uniforms churned out by state factories, Ahmad said.
Omar Idlibi, a member of the Local Coordination Committee activist's organisation, told Reuters from Beirut: They were fighting tanks with mostly rifles. The Syrian army siege has basically turned Homs into a disaster zone.
Speaking after a meeting with Yemeni Nobel peace laureate Tawakul Karman in Paris, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said the behaviour of the Syrian authorities was absolutely unacceptable and that it could no longer be trusted.
Its acceptance of Arab League plan was followed in the immediate hours by a new round of repression and new massacres.
Juppe said Syria is witnessing a new round of repression after the Arab initiative and France was working to raise international pressure on Damascus and strengthening ties with the Syrian opposition.
Syrian authorities have not commented on the offensive on Homs but have repeatedly said that terrorists were operating in the city, killing civilians and police, and that local inhabitants wanted them cleansed.
They say Islamist militants and foreign-backed armed gangs have killed 1,100 members of the security forces during seven months of unrest. The United Nations says more than 3,000 people have been killed in Assad's crackdown. Syrian activists put the number of civilians killed as high as 4,200.
Activists reported dozens of arrests Tuesday in Latakia, Damascus suburbs and the southern Hauran Plain, on top of tens of thousands of people who have been rounded up and thousands who have disappeared since the uprising against 41 years of Assad family rule started in March.
Many are in secret police dungeons or in sports facilities that have been turned into makeshift prisons, they said.
Western countries have denounced Assad for continuing the violence, but have effectively ruled out military involvement like the air strikes that helped topple Libya's Muammar Gaddafi.
I deplore what is happening in Syria. It is particularly disappointing that it is taking place now after the Syrian government said a few days ago that they accepted the request of the Arab League to withdraw their forces from towns and ... release political opponents and to end the killing, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in Strasbourg.
But, he said: I don't think the answer to this now or subsequently would be a military (one) from outside.... We will not be able to apply the same answer in Syria as in Libya.
Arab countries so far have not demanded Assad step down. They fear a potential contagious chaos may ensue, given Syria's volatile sectarian divisions, which are replicated in varying degrees in other Arab countries.
Tit-for-tat sectarian killings were reported in Homs last week, between Sunni Muslims, who form the majority of Syria's 20 million population, and members of Assad's minority Alawite sect, who dominate the country's levers of power, controlling the military, security apparatus and key sectors of the economy.
Syria's representative to the Arab League, Youssef Ahmad, said Damascus had gone a long away towarHd implementing the Arab League plan, pointing to the release of around 500 detainees under a conditional amnesty announced last week.
Ahmad, speaking on state television, renewed Syrian accusations that the United States was inciting bloodshed.
He said the Arab League must ignore what he described as false media reports and that Damascus had supplied all the information that shows the aggression practised by the armed terrorist groups on civilians and the security forces.
About 1,100 political prisoners, including opposition figure Naji Tayyara, went on a hunger strike at the Homs central jail Monday to protest their continued incarceration despite the Arab League deal, activists said.
(Additional reporting by John Irish and Gilbert Reilhac in Paris)