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Middle East

Syrian forces move into Homs district after shelling


Troops and militiamen loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad moved into a residential district of Homs after six days of tank bombardment that killed scores of people and wounded hundreds in the hotbed of unrest, residents and activists said today.

Since a military crackdown on Homs to suppress protests and an emerging insurgency against President Bashar al-Assad intensified last week, least 100 civilians have been killed, mostly from tank fire into the Bab Amro district, they said, amid a growing Arab and Western outcry over rising casualties.

"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. He added that most residents had fled Bab Amro.

"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," he said.

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 to end the offensive against protesters touched off by the spread of anti-Assad rallies.

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.

Under its deal with Arab peers, Syria was supposed to pull its military out of restive cities, political prisoners would go free and talks with the opposition, which seeks Assad's removal and more democratic freedom, would begin within two weeks.