The Syrian regime showed a new determination to crush its opponents, vowing to “cleanse” a rebel-held district in the besieged central city of Homs after nearly four weeks of shelling.
Government troops massed outside the embattled neighbourhood of Baba Amr, raising fears among activists of an imminent ground invasion that could endanger thousands of residents, as well as two trapped Western journalists who have been under heavy bombardment.
A Spanish journalist who had been stuck in the area escaped Wednesday to Lebanon, the second foreign reporter to do so since a government rocket attack last week killed two of his colleagues and wounded two others.
The fate of the foreign journalists has drawn attention to Homs, which has emerged as a key battleground between government forces and those seeking to end the regime of the authoritarian President Bashar Assad.
The government’s increasingly bloody attempts to put down the 11-month uprising have fuelled mounting international criticism.
The Obama administration summoned Syria’s senior envoy in the US, Zuheir Jabbour, over the Homs offensive.
The State Department’s top diplomat for the Middle East, Jeffrey Feltman, expressed his “outrage over the month-long campaign of brutality and indiscriminate shelling” in Homs.
US secretary of state Hillary Clinton told members of Congress on Tuesday that Assad could be considered a war criminal.
UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said Syria had not yet agreed to allow her to into the country. Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, called that refusal “shameful”.
“Rather than meeting the needs of its people, the barbaric Syrian government is preparing its final assault on the city of Homs,” Ms Rice said. “Meanwhile, food shortages are reported to be so severe that people, especially children, will soon start dying of hunger.”
The UN and the Arab League have appointed former secretary general Kofi Annan as their joint envoy to Syria, but Damascus says it needs more information on his mission’s goals before it will let him in.
The UN estimates that more than 7,500 people have been killed since the anti-Assad struggle started in March 2011, when protesters inspired by successful Arab Spring uprisings against dictators in Tunisia and Egypt took to the streets in Syria.
As Assad’s forces used deadly force to stop the unrest, protests spread and some Syrians took up arms against the regime.
Activists put the total death toll at more than 8,000, most of them civilians.
China urged world powers to provide humanitarian assistance to Syria, as Beijing tries to bolster diplomacy while continuing to oppose any armed intervention in the conflict.
Heightening fears of greater carnage, a Syrian official said the government was planning a major offensive against the Homs neighbourhood of Baba Amr.
“Baba Amr will be under control complete control in the coming hours and we’ll cleanse all the armed elements from the area,” he said.
Activists reported heavy shelling throughout Homs, raising concern that the government was preparing a ground invasion to take back the city.
Since the first week of February, government forces have showered parts of Homs with daily barrages of mortars, tank shells and rockets. The violence has caused many to flee the city of one million people, Syria’s third-largest, while those who remain are trapped inside.
Hundreds have been killed in recent weeks, activists say, including residents who foraged for food outside their homes.
It was virtually impossible to reach anyone inside Baba Amr yesterday. Activists elsewhere in Homs said their colleagues based in the neighbourhood had stopped communicating with the outside because of fears the army would trace their satellite signals to target them.
“Today has been very scary,” said activist Mulham al-Jundi, speaking from another part of Homs via Skype. “They are still killing in Baba Amr and the water and electricity have been cut to most of the city.”
He and his colleague ran their computer off a small generator to communicate with the outside, he said. Armed rebels from a loose-knit group called the Free Syrian Army had been fighting with pro-government troops on the outskirts of Homs to try to keep them from entering, but he said their inferior arms were not much of a deterrent.
“The Free Army has been trying to defend the area with almost no ammunition for 15 days. What can a Kalashhikov do against a tank and a mortar? How can they resist?” he said.
Many civilians had fled the city’s rebel-held areas, “but now those who are in are stuck. There’s no way out”.
Homs is about 12 miles north east of the frontier with Lebanon, and cross-border smuggling has been key to the city’s survival and to arming the rebels because of the links between Sunnis in northern Lebanon and the Sunni majority in Homs.
The city also has a minority population of Alawite Muslims, the sect to which Assad and most of his security forces belong.
The ordeal of the foreign journalists, who sneaked into Syria illegally to report on the uprising, has drawn attention to Homs’ plight.
Spanish photographer Javier Espinosa crossed safely into Lebanon, according to his girlfriend, Monica Garcia Prieto. His employer, El Mundo, confirmed it.
Two French journalists, Edith Bouvier and William Daniels, remain in Baba Amr, Ms Prieto said.
Ms Bouvier and British photographer Paul Conroy were wounded last week in a government rocket attack on a makeshift media centre that killed Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik. Mr Conroy was smuggled into Lebanon on Tuesday after fleeing the neighbourhood on Sunday night.
Mr Annan said he hoped to meet Assad and would ``plead'' with him to engage with the international effort to help find a peaceful solution to the conflict.
He told reporters after meeting secretary general Ban Ki-moon that others had different ideas of how to end the conflict – an apparent reference to a military solution – but that a “peaceful solution through dialogue and a speedy one” was the way to go.
“The message is clear – that the killing and violence must stop,” Mr Annan said. “Humanitarian agencies must be given access to do their work ... (and) there’s a need for dialogue between all actors in Syria.”
Nobel Peace Prize winner Mr Annan, UN secretary general from 1997 to 2006, said he would travel to the Middle East soon. Diplomats said he planned to fly to Cairo tomorrow to meet Arab League secretary general Nabil Elaraby.
Mr Annan met Assad several times while he was UN chief but he said he had not been in touch for several years. He said he expected to visit Damascus “fairly soon”, but later warned that “time will tell” whether the Syrians would allow him into the country.
Mr Ban said he was counting on all states to support Mr Annan’s mission, including the 15 on the UN Security Council, which has been deeply divided over Syria. Russia and China have vetoed two resolutions condemning the Syrian government’s bloody crackdown and calling for Assad to step down.
The Syrian government requested information about the objectives of Mr Annan’s mission and Mr Ban said an official letter was on its way to Assad.