By: Khaled Yacoub Oweis and Alistair Lyon
Syrian tanks pushed into a rebel stronghold in the battered city of Homs on Thursday and U.N. investigators accused President Bashar al-Assad’s government of crimes against humanity.
Rockets, shells and mortar rounds rained on the Baba Amro district, where armed insurgents are holed up with terrified civilians, for the 20th day in a row, activists said. The Sunni Muslim quarters of Inshaat and Khalidiya also came under fire.
Homs-based activist Abu Imad said tanks had entered the Jobar area in the south of Baba Amro.
“Explosions are shaking the whole of Homs. God have mercy,” Abdallah al-Hadi said from the city, where more than 80 people, including two Western journalists and Syrian opposition citizen journalist Rami al-Sayed, were reported killed on Wednesday.
Western diplomats said it had not yet been possible to extract the bodies of Marie Colvin, an American working for Britain’s Sunday Times, and French photographer Remi Ochlik.
Three journalists wounded in the same attack – British photographer Paul Conroy, French reporter Edith Bouvier and Paris-based photographer William Daniels – were also awaiting evacuation from the wrecked Baba Amro neighborhood.
The Syrian Information Ministry said it “rejects accusations that Syria is responsible for the deaths of journalists who infiltrated into the country on their own responsibility, without the authorities knowing about their entry or location.”
The plight of Homs and other embattled towns will dominate “Friends of Syria” talks in Tunis on Friday involving the United States, European and Arab countries, Turkey and other nations demanding that Assad halt the bloodshed and relinquish power.
Russia, which along with China has vetoed two U.N. Security Council resolutions on Syria, has said it will not attend.
DEMAND FOR ACCESS
U.S. officials said the Friends of Syria group would challenge Assad to provide humanitarian access within days to civilians embroiled in the intensifying conflict.
The army is blocking medical supplies to parts of Homs and electricity is cut off 15 hours a day, activists say. Hospitals, schools, shops and government offices are closed.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has been trying to get the government and rebel forces to agree daily two-hour ceasefires. Access for aid workers will also be the focus of a planned visit to Syria by U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos.
France said the Tunis conference would illustrate Assad’s isolation. “It will recall that the international community has condemned the regime’s venture into criminality,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal told an online news briefing.
World outrage has swelled over the carnage in Syria, where thousands have been killed since the anti-Assad uprising flared in March, inspired by revolts against Arab autocrats elsewhere.
U.N. investigators said Syrian forces had shot dead unarmed women and children, shelled residential areas and tortured wounded protesters in hospital under orders issued at the “highest levels” of the army and government.
In their report to the U.N. Human Rights Council, they called for perpetrators of such crimes against humanity to face prosecution and said they had drawn up a confidential list of names of commanders and officials alleged to be responsible.
The commission, led by Brazilian Paulo Pinheiro, found that Free Syrian Army rebels had also committed abuses including killings and abductions, “although not comparable in scale.”
Syrian authorities could not be immediately reached for comment on the commission’s latest findings, but they rejected its previous report in November as “totally false.”
Footage shot by activists in Homs shows blasted buildings, empty streets and doctors treating casualties in makeshift clinics in Baba Amro after nearly three weeks of bombardment.
In violence elsewhere, a youth and a five-year-old boy were killed when troops fought army deserters in the southern city of Deraa, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The British-based group said a 35-year-old man was killed and six people were wounded by the security forces in the town of Maarat Numan in the northwestern province of Idlib.
The state news agency SANA said three members of the security forces were killed and seven wounded by a bomb planted by “armed terrorists” near the city of Idlib.
It also reported the funerals of 16 members of the security forces it said had been killed by insurgents in Homs, Deraa, Hama, Suweida and the Damascus countryside.
Army deserters and other rebels have taken up arms in some parts of Syria to resist a violent response by the authorities to what began as mostly peaceful protests against Assad’s 11-year rule and decades of dominance by his minority Alawite sect.
In the United States, Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich advocated arming Syrian insurgents.
“We need to work with Saudi Arabia and with Turkey to say, ‘You guys provide the kind of weaponry that’s needed to help the rebels inside Syria,’” Romney said.
The White House, which so far has been against military intervention in Syria, has hinted that if a political solution were impossible it might have to consider other options.
Several hundred people have been killed in Homs by troops using artillery, tanks, rockets and sniper fire.
Residents fear Assad will subject the city to the same fate his late father Hafez inflicted on Hama, where many thousands were killed in the crushing of an armed Islamist revolt in 1982.
Assad has called a referendum on a new constitution on Sunday, to be followed by a multi-party parliamentary election, which he says is a response to calls for reform. The plan is supported by his allies Russia and China but Western powers have dismissed it and the Syrian opposition has called for a boycott.