Syrian forces pound cities; Russia readies marines

BEIRUT Tue Jun 19, 2012 1:53am IST

1 of 2. A Syrian soldier stands next to a car with 'Free Army' written on it in Haffeh town near Latakia city June 14, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Khaled al-Hariri

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian security forces pounded opposition areas across the country on Monday and at least 79 people were killed in violence that has escalated since international observers suspended their mission, activists said.

Intense artillery fire was reported in Douma, a town 15 km (9 miles) outside the capital Damascus that has for weeks been under the partial control of rebels who have joined the 15-month-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.

"We can't even accurately count the dead because we have so many injured people to treat, there's no time to think about anything else," said an activist in Douma who called himself Ziad.

"The army attacks all the time. They have tanks, missiles, mortars, and artillery. Even helicopters have fired on us. People can't escape because the army is surrounding the town."

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists across Syria, said 51 civilians and rebel fighters had been killed on Monday, seven of them in Douma.

It said 28 members of the security forces were also killed in clashes with rebels in Deir al-Zor, Damascus and Deraa.

A Russian naval source said Moscow was preparing to send marines to Syria in the event it needed to protect personnel and remove equipment from its naval facility in Syria's Mediterranean port of Tartous, according to the Interfax news agency.

RUSSIAN BACKING

Russia is one of the Syrian government's staunchest backers and supports Assad's argument that foreign-backed terrorists are behind the unrest. Moscow has repeatedly urged Western and Arab countries, who mostly back the rebels, to rein in their support in order to stem the violence.

International outrage over Syria has grown in recent weeks after two reported massacres in which almost 200 civilians were killed, most of them from the Sunni Muslim majority that has led the revolt. Assad comes from Syria's Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam that has mostly backed the president.

Heavier fighting and apparent sectarian killings have led many, including the head of U.N. peacekeeping forces, to brand the violence a civil war.

International efforts to halt the violence are deadlocked because Russia and China, which both wield vetoes in the Security Council, have blocked tougher action against Assad. They say the solution must come through political dialogue, an approach most of the Syrian opposition rejects.

Western powers have been pushing for stronger measures to be taken against Assad, whose forces have in recent weeks used not only artillery but also helicopter gunships against rebels in civilian areas.

Relations between Washington and Moscow have frayed after a week of Cold War-style recriminations over Syria.

U.S. President Barack Obama said after talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Mexico that they concurred on the desire for a "political solution" and had pledged to "work with other international actors", including U.N./Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, to find a resolution.

COUNCIL BRIEFING

The head of the U.N. observation mission in Syria, General Robert Mood, is to brief the U.N. Security Council in New York on Tuesday, three days after his mission was suspended due to security concerns.

Mood said on Sunday he was worried about civilians trapped in the central city of Homs, epicentre of the revolt against Assad, whose residents say they have been pummelled by mortar and rocket fire almost every day since early June.

"It's getting worse since the U.N. observers suspended their mission," wrote Alaa, who said he was a Homs resident but would only give his first name.

"There are tanks shooting now, and most stores are closed. The streets are blocked by security barriers and cement blocks."

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said the "relentless repression of the regime, and in particular in the city of Homs" meant it was more necessary than ever for the United Nations to enforce Annan's failing peace plan.

France has called on the United Nations to invoke Chapter VII, which can authorise the use of force, to enforce the plan, under which the Syrian army was to withdraw heavy weapons from towns and cities and both sides were to cease fighting in April.

In Geneva, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said the government's use of heavy weapons in populated areas could amount to war crimes, saying:

"I urge the international community to overcome its divisions and work to end the violence and human rights violations to which the people of Syria have been subjected."

(Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman in Moscow, Tom Miles in Geneva, Dominic Evans in Beirut and John Irish in Paris; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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