BEIRUT — Syrian troops intensified shelling of rebel-held neighborhoods in Homs Sunday according to activists who said humanitarian conditions in the city are growing dire and pressed for evacuation of 1,000 endangered families and dozens of wounded who cannot get adequate medical care.
Homs has been under siege for more than a week, part of a major escalation of violence around the country that forced the 300-strong U.N. observer force in Syria to call off its patrols.
"The humanitarian situation in Homs is very difficult," said Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the British-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. "It is very clear that the army wants to retake Homs."
The Observatory asked the U.N. on Saturday to intervene in Homs to evacuate hundreds of men, women and children whose lives are in danger. It also said dozens of wounded people in rebel-controlled areas of the central city cannot get medicine or doctors to treat them.
Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, the chief of the U.N. observer mission in Syria, said Saturday that intensifying clashes over the past 10 days were "posing significant risks" to the unarmed observers who were spread out across the country, and hampering their efforts. The decision came after weeks of escalating attacks, including reports of several mass killings that left dozens dead.
The observers were the only working part of a peace plan brokered by international envoy Kofi Annan. The international community saw that plan as its only hope to stop the bloodshed.
It called for the foreign monitors to check compliance with a cease-fire that was supposed to go into effect on April 12, but never took hold. They have become the most independent witnesses to the carnage on both sides as government and rebel forces ignored the truce.
The statement calling off observer patrols reinforced fears that Syria is sliding ever closer to civil war 15 months after the rebellion to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad began. Opposition groups say more than 14,000 civilians and rebels have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011.
The Observatory says more than 3,400 soldiers and militiamen loyal to the government have also been killed.
Regime forces have been waging a fierce offensive through towns and villages nationwide, trying to root out rebels by shelling urban areas with tanks and attacking from helicopters. Rebels also have attacked Syrian forces, mostly trying to burn tanks.
On Sunday, the Observatory said 27 civilians and rebel fighters were killed and more than a dozen soldiers around the country. Another group, the Local Coordination Committee, said over 50 people were killed – the group does not count soldiers' deaths. Both groups said most people were killed in shelling in Homs province and in towns around the capital Damascus.
Amateur footage by a Homs activist showed plumes of smoke wafting over the city with the sound of gunfire and shells slamming into concrete and metal.
In the nearby city of Rastan, amateur video showed the bodies of two brothers struck by a shell. None of the activists' claims could be independently verified because the Syrian government does not allow reporters or rights groups to work independently in the country.
The Observatory said nine people were killed in Homs province Saturday, three of them in the city itself. One of them was a rebel.
The Observatory said six civilians were killed in shelling in the rebel strongholds of Rastan and Talbiseh in Homs province on Sunday. In the villages of Abyan and Andadan in the province of Aleppo, three people were killed in shelling after troops took control of the town.
In Turkey, the leader of Syria's main opposition group, Abdulbaset Sieda, said in a speech that the suspension of the observers' activities shows that "the international community has given up hope on this regime that is in its last days."
"The international community must bear its ... responsibilities to take decisive decisions through the (U.N.) Security Council under Chapter 7 to protect civilians," said Sieda. A Chapter 7 resolution authorizes actions to enforce that can ultimately include the use of military force, which U.S. administration and European officials – for now – are playing down as a possibility.
Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague said the U.N.'s move to halt observer patrols underscored the need for the international community urgently to come together to compel the regime to meet its commitments.
"The United Nations Security Council will be considering its options including for the future of the U.N. Mission to Syria in light of a briefing from Major-General Mood on Tuesday," he said in a statement.
The U.S. reiterated its call for the Assad regime to comply with the plan, "including the full implementation of a cease-fire."
The Syrian government blamed rebels for the escalation in fighting.
Activists said seven people were killed in the towns around Damascus, where intense clashes were reported between Syrian forces and rebels. Another five people were killed in the northern province of Deir al-Zour.
Rebels also attacked an army checkpoint in central Hama province killing at least three soldiers, the Observatory said.
Syria's state-run news agency SANA said its military engineering units dismantled a 50-kg explosive device planted by rebels in the nearby Homs province. SANA said Syrian troops also battled late Saturday with infiltrators from Lebanon killing six and wounding four of them. It added that Syrian forces also foiled an infiltration attempt from Turkey into the northern province of Idlib.
Syrian authorities say that weapons are being smuggled to rebels from neighboring countries.