Syria Rockets Homs As Arab League Meets In Cairo
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis and Angus MacSwan
AMMAN/BEIRUT, Feb 12 (Reuters) - Sporadic rocket and gunfire broke a respite in Syrian government attacks on opposition-held districts of Homs city on Sunday as Arab League officials in Cairo discussed ways to halt the crackdown and shift President Bashar al-Assad from power.
The activist Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said four people were been killed in Baba Amro on Sunday morning and at least 34 rockets had rained down on the neighbourhood.
Earlier, traumatised residents had straggled from their homes after Syrian forces eased a week-long bombardment that has killed hundreds and caused a humanitarian crisis.
A few families were allowed to leave mostly Sunni Muslim opposition districts where people had been trapped indoors for days by relentless artillery and sniper fire, residents said.
International efforts to resolve the crisis, the longest of the Arab Spring revolts which saw the overthrow of leaders in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia last year, picked up in Cairo.
The Arab League meeting opened with the resignation of the Sudanese general who led the monitoring mission to Syria, Mohammed al-Dabi. He had been a controversial figure because of his country's own poor human rights record.
The League proposed that former Jordanian foreign minister Abdel Elah al-Khatib, the U.N.'s troubleshooter for the Libya crisis last year, was made special envoy for the Syria crisis.
The League, which suspended Syria over a crackdown that has killed thousands since March, was also to discuss a possible joint United Nations-Arab monitoring team to replace a League mission called off last month as violence intensified.
A Syrian opposition leader said Gulf ministers would also discuss a proposal to recognise the exiled Syrian National Council (SNC) in a move to further isolate Assad.
Senior SNC official Abdel Baset, who has been meeting Arab ministers and officials, said ministers were also expected to discuss proposals for a "Friends of Syria" contact group of Arab, Western and other countries to press for action over Syria. The plan was proposed by France and the United States.
HOMS UNDER FIRE AGAIN
In Homs, shelling had eased during Saturday night and Sunday morning before Assad's forces renewed their rocket barrages.
About 15 families were allowed to leave the battered Baba Amro and Inshaat neighbourhoods, opposition campaigner Mohammad al-Hassan told Reuters by telephone from Homs.
Electricity and telephone lines were working in several districts of Homs after being cut off more than two weeks ago.
YouTube footage showed several thousand people rallying in Deir Baalba district. Youths with their arms around each others' shoulders danced and waved the green and white flags of the republic overthrown by Assad's Baath Party in a 1963 coup.
"God damn your soul, to hell with you Bashar. Our martyrs are going to heaven, Hafez and Bashar," they chanted, referring to the president - in power for 11 years - and his late father.
The Assad family, from the minority Alawite sect, have ruled Sunni-majority Syria for 42 years.
The opposition Local Coordination Committees cited doctors at makeshift hospitals as saying at least 31 people were killed in Homs on Saturday before the shelling eased off.
World powers are divided over how to end the conflict which threatens to blow open the complex ethnic, religious and political faultlines across the Middle East.
On Feb. 4, Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution sponsored by Western and Arab states that backed an Arab League transition plan calling for Assad to step down.
Diplomats at the United Nations say Saudi Arabia, a Sunni power irked by Assad's alliance with its Shi'ite regional rival Iran, has floated a similar draft for the U.N. General Assembly, where resolutions are non-binding but cannot be vetoed.
But a Saudi foreign ministry official denied on Sunday that Riyadh had formally submitted any such measure. "No provision of any draft resolution on behalf of the Kingdom has been presented to the General Assembly," he told the state news agency SPA.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said on Saturday that Moscow would not back any "unbalanced" text in the assembly similar to the one it blocked in the Security Council.
On Friday, Saudi King Abdullah said the Russian and Chinese veto of the Syria resolution was an "unfavourable" move.
Meanwhile Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri urged Syrians not to rely on the West or Arab governments in their uprising.
"You know better what they are planning against you. Our people in Syria, don't depend on the Arab League and its corrupt governments supporting it," Zawahri said in a video recording posted on the Internet on Sunday.
He described Assad as a butcher and urged Muslims in Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan to come to the aid of Syrian rebels.
In Syria's northern town of Aleppo, mourners gathered for the funerals of 28 soldiers and civilians killed in bomb attacks on two military and security facilities on Friday.
No one has claimed responsibilty for the bombing but the Assad government has blamed previous such attacks in Damascus on al Qaeda. It characterises its opponents as foreign-backed "armed terrorists".
Speaking at the funerals, Ahmed Badr al-Din Hassoun, mufti of Syria, appealed to the opposition to end its campaign.
"Enough. Enough. Enough. Why, brothers in the opposition, do you want to burn down your country? Why do you want to shed blood?" he said.
He also urged Assad to stamp out corruption, saying "this way it will not remain a pretext for those who want to destroy this nation".
In a rare show of compromise, government forces and rebels struck a truce in the town of Zabadani near the Lebanese border after a week of shelling by the military.
Under the agreement, reached after a week-long tank and artillery bombardment that killed at least 100, rebel forces were allowed to leave if they gave up weapons and armour seized from government forces, said Kamal al-Labwani, an opposition leader in exile.
Assad has sent his forces into cities and towns across Syria to put down the uprising and as it evolves from pro-democracy street protests to armed insurrection, world powers fear a slide into civil war with knock-on effects for Syria's neighbours.
Gulf Arab states, the United States, Europe and Turkey hope diplomacy can force Assad out and have ruled out military action of the kind that helped oust Libya's Muammar Gaddafi last year.
Assad can count on the support of Russia, Syria's main arms supplier and an ally stretching back to the Soviet era, as well as Iran. Moscow, which is keen to counter U.S. influence in the Middle East, insists foreign powers should not interfere. (Additional reporting by Ayman Samir in Cairo and Erika Solomon in Beirut; Editing by Alistair Lyon and Louise Ireland)