BEIRUT — Medics stitch wounds with thread used for clothing. Hungry residents risk Syrian government sniper fire or shelling to hunt for dwindling supplies of bread and canned food on the streets of the besieged city of Homs.
The opposition stronghold was being destroyed "inch by inch," by government forces, with collapsed walls and scorched buildings, according to accounts Thursday, while Western and Arab leaders hoped to silence the guns long enough to rush in relief aid.
The pressure for "humanitarian corridors" into the central Syrian city of Homs and other places caught in President Bashar Assad's crushing attacks appeared to be part of shifts toward more aggressive steps against his regime after nearly a year of bloodshed and thousands of deaths in an anti-government uprising.
In back-to-back announcements, U.N.-appointed investigators in Geneva said a list for possible crimes against humanity prosecution reaches as high as Assad, and international envoys in London – including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton – made final touches to an expected demand for Assad to call a cease-fire within days to permit emergency shipments of food and medicine.
Washington and European allies remain publicly opposed to direct military intervention. But there have been growing signs that Western leaders could back efforts to open channels for supplies and weapons to the Syrian opposition, which includes breakaway soldiers from Assad's military.
In a sign of the international divide, however, key Assad ally Russia said Moscow and Beijing remain opposed to any foreign interference in Syria. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev spoke by telephone with the president of the United Arab Emirates and emphasized that "foreign interference, attempts to assess the legitimacy of the leadership of a state from the outside, run counter to the norms of international law and are fraught with the threat of regional and global destabilization," the Kremlin said.
"It is a deeply frustrating situation," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told BBC radio ahead of the London talks. He said that the Assad regime "has continued to act seemingly with impunity."
At least 16 people were killed across Syria, activists said. One group, the Local Coordination Committees, put the number at 40 with attacks ranging from mountain villages to areas near the capital of Damascus. The reason for the differing tolls was not immediately clear.
The most intense offensive, however, remained on beleaguered Homs, Syria's third-largest city. Its defiance – amid hundreds of civilian casualties in the past weeks – has eroded Assad's narrative that the uprising is the work of "armed thugs" and foreign plots.
Images posted online and accounts from activists and correspondents smuggled in – including two Western journalists killed Wednesday – also have stirred comparisons to sieges such as Misrata during last year's Arab Spring revolt in Libya.
The epicenter – the Baba Amr neighborhood on the city's southeast corner – is a collection of slum-like apartment blocks with peeling paint and neglected older homes. They draw in workers and fortune-seekers from across Syria to a place known as the "mother of the poor" because of its cheaper cost of living, compared with Damascus or Aleppo.
"They are blanketing Baba Amr with shells and snipers. They are destroying it street by street, inch by inch," local activist Omar Shaker told The Associated Press.
Residents say 70 percent of the area is now uninhabitable in harsh winter weather with temperatures dipping close to freezing some nights. Walls have collapsed; windows are shattered from shells that fall as much as two-a-minute during some of the heaviest barrages.
Another Homs activist, Mulham al-Jundi, called the conditions "catastrophic" in parts of the city, spreading over a valley in central Syria just 18 miles (30 kilometers) from the Lebanese border. Long lines form at even rumors of bread, cans of food or fuel for heaters, he said.
"There simply isn't enough to go around anymore," said Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Syria's state-run media pushed back with its own version: Running photos on the official news agency SANA that claim to show markets full of food in Homs. It called the claims about food shortages "fabricating lies."
Activists give a very different view. Bodies are buried wherever people can find space, they say. The wounded are too scared to try to reach government-controlled hospitals in other parts of the city. Instead, they stagger into makeshift clinics in kitchens and offices, al-Jundi said.
He said clothing thread is now used after surgical sutures ran out. In some places, medics conduct operations by only the light of an office lamp. In the Bab Drieb neighborhood, volunteers get a crash course in basic first aid before being put to work.
"I saw a nurse teaching a couple of people what to do. They had no idea," said al-Jundi. "It's unbelievable and tragic."
Homs – which is mostly Sunni – was an early flashpoint of dissent against Assad's regime, which is led by the minority Alawite community, which has Shiite power Iran as its main patron.
In April, protesters gathered at the central Clock Square in Homs, bringing mattresses, food and water in hopes of emulating Cairo's Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution. Homs had a reputation for tolerance between Syria's religions and Muslim sects, said Mohammad Saleh, an opposition figure who fled the city, but Sunnis have increasingly felt pushed into an underclass status by Assad.
A Western intelligence official said the Syrian military has the ability to "level Homs if it wanted to." But the risks of backlash from Syria's majority Sunnis – including many military officers – is far too great, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity under briefing rules.
On Wednesday, shelling of Baba Amr killed American-born veteran war correspondent Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik.
They were among a group of journalists who had crossed into Syria illegally and were sharing accommodations with activists, raising speculation that government forces targeted the makeshift media center where they were staying. But opposition groups had previously described the shelling as indiscriminate. At least two other Western journalists were wounded on Wednesday.
A Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman offered condolences to the families of Colvin and Ochlik, but rejected any responsibility for their deaths. The spokesman urged foreign journalists to respect Syrian laws and not to sneak into the country.
Some Syrians held protests and vigils Wednesday night to honor Colvin and Ochlik.
"Remi Ochlik, Marie Colvin, we will not forget you," read one banner held by protesters in the town of Qsour in Homs province.
Two other journalists were wounded. In a video posted on YouTube, one of those injured, Edith Bouvier of Le Figaro, said her leg is broken in two places and that she has received some medical treatment but now needs an operation. Bouvier said she was speaking Thursday and is calm throughout the more than six-minute video.
The U.N. estimates that 5,400 people have been killed in repression by the Assad regime against a popular uprising that began 11 months ago. That figure was given in January and has not been updated. Syrian activists put the death toll at more than 7,300. Overall figures cannot be independently confirmed because Syria keeps tight control on the media.
"Every minute counts," Shaker said. "People will soon start to collapse from lack of sleep and shortages in food."
The international struggle over how to end Syria's crisis moves Friday to Tunisia. The meeting is expected to bring together more than 70 nations to look at ways to assist Assad's opponents.
On the eve of the Tunisia meeting, the U.N. announced that former secretary-general Kofi Annan would be the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria. His mandate will be to try to end the violence and arrange a political transition.
The United States, Europe and Arab nations worked in London to draft a demand for Assad to impose a cease-fire with 72 hours to allow humanitarian convoys or face new punitive measures, likely to include toughened sanctions.
Officials at the London meeting said some nations have proposed creating protected corridors for humanitarian relief. It was unclear, however, whether it would receive full backing because it would almost certainly require military protection. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the ongoing discussions before the so-called "Friends of Syria" conference in Tunis.
Some Arab nations, such as Qatar, have urged consideration of direct military intervention similar to the NATO-led air campaign that helped end Moammar Gadhafi's regime in Libya. Western powers have so far opposed trying to mobilize another military coalition for Syria.
More workable, officials said, would be a cease-fire such as the one proposed by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is calling for a daily two-hour break in fighting to provide aid.
"The efforts that we are undertaking with the international community ... are intended to demonstrate the Assad regime's deepening isolation," Clinton told reporters. "Our immediate focus is on increasing the pressure. We have got to find ways of getting food, medicine and other humanitarian assistance. Into affected areas. This takes time and it takes a lot of diplomacy."
If Assad doesn't comply, "we think that the pressure will continue to build. ... I think that the strategy followed by the Syrians and their allies is one that can't stand the test of legitimacy ... for any length of time," she said. "There will be increasingly capable opposition forces. They will from somewhere, somehow find the means to defend themselves as well as begin offensive measures."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the Obama administration still opposes military intervention but "obviously we'll have to evaluate this as time goes on."
In Geneva, a panel of U.N. human rights experts said the United Nations has a secret list of top Syrian officials who could face investigation for crimes against humanity. The U.N. experts indicated that the list goes as high as Assad.
Experts said the list appears mostly part of international pressures on Syria rather than a direct threat. Syria isn't a member of the International Criminal Court so is outside its jurisdiction. Russia also would likely block any moves in the U.N. Security Council to refer the country to the Hague-based tribunal.
The European Union is expected next week to add seven Syrian government ministers to those already under sanctions that free assets and ban visas, said an EU official in Brussels. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of EU rules, said additional restrictions may be imposed on Syria's central bank, on imports of precious metals from the country, and on cargo flights.
The EU had already sanctioned more than 70 Syrians and 19 organizations, and has banned imports of Syrian oil.
In Amman, Jordan, several dozen Syrians, mainly from Homs, protested at the U.S. Embassy and asked for Western military intervention. "Almighty God, destroy Bashar," they chanted.
Associated Press writers Dale Gavlak in Amman, Jordan, Matthew Lee and David Stringer in London, Lynn Berry in Moscow, Slobodan Lekic in Brussels and Frank Jordans in Geneva contributed to this report.