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Assad's slaughter of the innocents

Newborn babies are among the latest victims of the Syrian government's brutal assault on Homs

Bashar al-Assad's bloody siege of Homs intensified yesterday as clear evidence emerged that his indiscriminate shelling of the restive town had started claiming innocent victims, including at least 18 premature babies and three entire families. The evidence came as civilians in the besieged city endured a fifth day of incessant shellfire – the worst yet, according to eyewitnesses – with dozens of other people being killed as the brutal assault continued. Last night, news footage was broadcast purporting to show a military convoy making its way to Homs.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said at least 53 people were killed across Homs yesterday. Hundreds more have died since Friday, when Mr Assad’s generals launched a barrage of shells and rockets on neighbourhoods where government opposition is strong.

Last night, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the Arab League’s monitoring mission should resume following the “disastrous” failure to pass a Security Council resolution censoring the Assad regime, adding that he believed the situation was likely to deteriorate further. “I fear that the appalling brutality we are witnessing in Homs, with heavy weapons firing into civilian neighborhoods, is a grim harbinger of worse to come,” he said.

The district of Bab Amr has been one of the worst-hit areas. According to Mahmoud Araby, who spoke to The Independent by phone yesterday, the artillery assault has intensified since Friday.

“The shelling is constant and is coming from all four directions now,” he said. “Many children have been killed. Some of them have had their heads blown off in the explosions.” One video uploaded to YouTube showed the full scale of the military’s five-day assault, with a panoramic view of Bab Amr showing street after street of crumbling, shell-ravaged houses.

Another video, which was titled “the shooting of a child in her head”, showed a man running down the street cradling a toddler who has a stream of blood pouring from her temple. It was not possible to verify either video.

As many as 18 premature babies, all of whom were being kept alive on generators, were reportedly killed after power was cut to Homs’ Al-Walid hospital. “The families were there when it happened,” said Mahmoud Araby, a 25-year-old student who was among dozens of families sheltering inside a wedding hall when they heard the news. “We were so angry and disgusted.” State TV denied the incident, claiming all hospitals in the area were functioning as normal.

Earlier, residents had woken up to the news that three Sunni Muslim families had been killed by gangs of shabiha, the militiamen loyal to Mr Assad, inside the city. According to the Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC), an activist group that works to publicise the uprising, all 19 of the victims – including children –had their throats cut.

As if to add to the sense of chaos enveloping Homs, Syrian TV reported that several people had been killed yesterday after a car bomb exploded in the city. The attack, which reportedly also killed members of the security services, happened in the central Bayada district; state news blamed “armed terrorists” for the incident.

It comes shortly after the wave of bomb attacks that ripped through Damascus in December. That series of bombings – an unprecedented event in a country as tightly monitored as Syria – also led to regime opponents being blamed by the government. Yet the accusation was widely dismissed by activists, who suspected the attacks were a state-sponsored ploy to undermine the pro-democracy movement.

Karam Abu Rabea, a Homs-based member of the LCC, said one of the reasons Bab Amr has been so heavily targeted is because of the strong presence of defected troops in the area. He told The Independent that a unit calling itself the Al-Farook Brigade - named after a highly influential advisor to the Prophet Mohamed - has been holed up there for days.