BEIRUT — Syrian forces shelled the central city of Homs on Monday during a fierce offensive to root out rebels as the country's most important ally, Russia, appeared to show growing concern over President Bashar Assad's future.
Russia's Interfax news agency reported that two Russian navy ships are prepared to head to Syria to protect Russian citizens and a naval base there.
"We must protect our citizens," Maj.-Gen. Vladimir Gradusov was quoted as saying. "We won't abandon the Russians and will evacuate them from the conflict zone, if necessary."
Each ship is capable of carrying up to 300 marines and a dozen tanks, according to Russian media reports. That would make it the largest known Russian troop deployment to Syria, signaling that Moscow is becoming increasingly uneasy about Syria's slide toward civil war.
Russia has been Syria's strongest ally over the course of the uprising, which began in March 2011 with mostly peaceful protests against Assad's regime. A ferocious government crackdown led many to take up arms, and the conflict is now an armed insurgency.
Opposition groups say more than 14,000 people have been killed since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, including more than 3,400 security forces.
Syria is Russia's last remaining ally in the Middle East, and has been a major customer of Soviet and Russian weapons industries for the last four decades, acquiring billions of dollars worth of combat jets, helicopters, missiles, armored vehicles and other military gear.
Tartus is Russia's only naval base outside the former Soviet Union, serving Russian navy ships on missions to the Mediterranean and hosting an unspecified number of military personnel.
Monday's renewed shelling in the restive Homs province comes as regime forces carry out an offensive to drive out rebels by shelling urban areas with tanks and attacking from helicopters. Rebels also have attacked Syrian forces, mostly trying to burn tanks.
The violence comes one day after the head of the U.N. observers' mission demanded that warring parties allow the evacuation of women, children, elderly and sick people.
"There is renewed shelling and shooting in the city of Homs," said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group that cited witnesses on the ground.
Gunfire and explosions also were reported in Homs, the Observatory said.
On Saturday, the U.N. said its 300 observers based in Syria were suspending all missions because of concerns for their safety after fighting intensified over the previous 10 days. But the monitors said they were remaining in Syria in Damascus.
The conflict in Syria has brought broad international condemnation, but the regime has appeared largely impervious to the pressure.
U.S. Sen. John McCain on Sunday characterized the lack of American aid to Syrian rebels as "shameful" and said helping their cause would deal "the greatest blow to Iran in the Middle East in 25 years." His remarks sought to maintain political pressure on President Barack Obama as violence in the region escalated.
"The fact that the United States of America is not helping these people – and we can – is shameful," McCain, who ran against Obama in 2008, said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."So far, the U.S. has refused to arm Syrian rebels in part to avoid a proxy fight with Iran and Russia, which both back Assad's regime.
U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice tweets:
|@ AmbassadorRice : #Syria regime turned artillery, tanks and helicopters on its own men & women. It unleashed knife-wielding shabiha gangs on its own children.|
Russia says international envoy Kofi Annan will visit Moscow on Monday to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria. Russia also called for an inquiry into an alleged massacre that took place in the village of Tramseh on Thursday. "We have no doubt that this wrongdoing serves the interests of those powers that are not seeking peace but persistently seek to sow the seeds of interconfessional and civilian conflict on Syrian soil," Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement, according to Reuters. Moscow did not apportion blame for the killings.
Read more on Reuters.com.
The Associated Press obtained a video that purports to show the aftermath of an alleged massacre in the village of Tramseh, near Hama.
How do Syria's fighters get their arms? An overview put together by Reuters explains that there are three gateways to the country -- Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq.
Syrian rebels are smuggling small arms into Syria through a network of land and sea routes involving cargo ships and trucks moving through Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, maritime intelligence and Free Syrian Army (FSA) officers say. Western and regional powers deny any suggestion they are involved in gun running. Their interest in the sensitive border region lies rather in screening to ensure powerful weapons such as surface to air missiles do not find their way to Islamist or other militants.
Read the full report here.
This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a man mourning a victim killed by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northwest of the central city of Hama, Thursday, July 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)
According to the Hama Revolutionary Council, a Syrian opposition group, more than 220 people have been killed in a new alleged massacre in Taramseh. Earlier reports said more than 100 people were killed. "More than 220 people fell today in Taramseh," the Council said in a statement. "They died from bombardment by tanks and helicopters, artillery shelling and summary executions."
Fadi Sameh, an opposition activist from Taramseh, told Reuters he had left the town before the reported massacre but was in touch with residents. "It appears that Alawite militiamen from surrounding villages descended on Taramseh after its rebel defenders pulled out, and started killing the people. Whole houses have been destroyed and burned from the shelling," Sameh claimed.
Read more on Reuters.com.
Syrian activist Rami Jarrah tweets that Syrian State TV has confirmed deaths in Tremseh. "Terrorists" is often the term used by the Syrian regime for opposition forces.
|@ AlexanderPageSY : Syrian State TV: clashes between security apparatus & terrorists in #Tremseh of #Hama leaves large numbers of terrorists killed #Syria|
|@ Reuters : UPDATE: DEATH TOLL IN SYRIAN FORCES' ATTACK ON VILLAGE IN SYRIA'S HAMA REGION IS MORE THAN 200, MOSTLY CIVILIANS - OPPOSITION ACTIVISTS|