The Syrian army dispatched tanks and reinforcements towards the resistance stronghold of Homs yesterday as Red Cross negotiators tried to broker a ceasefire so that emergency aid could be sent to areas wracked by fighting.
The mobilisation around Homs was an ominous sign that President Bashar al-Assad's regime was preparing a ground assault after weeks of shelling the district of Baba Amr, which the opposition has dubbed "Syria's Misrata" after the Libyan city where rebels fought off a brutal government siege.
A Syria-based activist, Mustafa Osso, said Mr Assad's military should be ready to face stiff battles because residents planned to fight "until the last person". Homs was facing "savage shelling that does not differentiate between military or civilians targets", he added.
Amateur videos posted online showed what activists said were shells falling into Baba Amr as black smoke billowed from residential areas. Phone lines and internet connections with the city were cut. In Geneva, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross said it had been in talks with Syrian authorities and opposition groups to negotiate a ceasefire in some of the most violence-torn areas.
"We are discussing several possibilities with all those concerned, and it includes a cessation of fighting in the most affected areas," said a spokeswoman, Carla Haddad. She said the talks were not aimed at resolving any political differences after more than 11 months of bloodshed and unrest. "The idea is to be able to facilitate swift access to people in need," she added.
Clashes between military rebels and Syrian forces are growing more frequent. Defectors have managed to take control of small pieces of territory in the north, as well as parts of Homs province, which is Syria's largest and stretches from the border with Lebanon in the west to Iraq and Jordan in the east. Increasingly, Syria appears to be careening toward an all-out civil war.
Activists believe Mr Assad may be trying to subdue Homs before a planned referendum on a new constitution is held on Sunday. The charter would allow a bigger role for opponents to challenge Mr Assad's Baath Party, which has controlled Syria since a 1963 coup.