By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
AMMAN, Feb 27 (Reuters) - Syrian artillery pummelled rebel-held areas of Homs on Monday before an expected government announcement that a vote - decried as a sham by the opposition and the West - has approved a new constitution proposed by President Bashar al-Assad.
Shells and rockets crashed into Sunni Muslim districts of Homs that have already endured weeks of bombardment as Assad's forces, led by officers from his minority Alawite sect, try to stamp out an almost year-long revolt against his 11-year rule.
"Intense shelling started on Khalidiya, Ashira, Bayada, Baba Amro and the old city at dawn," opposition activist Mohammed al-Homsi told Reuters from the city on the Damascus-Aleppo highway.
"The army is firing from the main thoroughfares deep into alleyways and side streets. Initial reports indicate at least two people killed in the souk area," he said.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said later at least seven people had been killed by shellfire in Baba Amro. The accounts of opposition activists were echoed by those from other observers, including the Red Cross.
At least 59 civilians and soldiers were killed on Sunday in a violent backdrop to a referendum on a constitution that offers some reforms, but could enable Assad to keep power until 2028.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, which has said conditions in parts of Homs are worsening by the hour, has failed to secure a pause in the fighting to allow the wounded to be evacuated and desperately needed aid to be delivered.
"We are still in negotiations. Since the beginning, the objective has been to go in and evacuate people and bring in assistance. Every hour, every day makes a difference," ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan said in Geneva.
QUEST FOR ACCESS
The relief agency has been pursuing talks with the Syrian authorities and opposition forces for days to secure access to besieged neighbourhoods such as Baba Amro, where local activists say hundreds of wounded need treatment and thousands of civilians are short of water, food and medical supplies.
Four Western journalists are trapped in Baba Amro, two of them wounded. American reporter Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik were killed there on Feb. 22.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he hoped the journalists could be rescued soon. "It's very tense, but things are starting to move, it seems," he told RTL radio.
The ICRC evacuated 27 people, seven of whom were badly wounded, from Baba Amro on Friday.
The ICRC and Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers distributed aid supplies in Hama, another restive city under army attack, on Monday for the first time in six weeks, the ICRC spokesman said.
The outside world has proved powerless to halt the carnage in Syria, where repression of initially peaceful protests has spawned an armed insurrection by army deserters and others.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin again warned the West against military intervention in Syria, Moscow's long-time ally, but U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made clear there was no enthusiasm in Washington for war. Russia and China have blocked action against Syria by the U.N. Security Council.
There were signs of rhetorical escalation in the international confrontation over Syria - Clinton's description last week of the Russian and Chinese veto as "despicable" earned her a reproach from Beijing's foreign ministry that such language was "totally unacceptable".
A Chinese newspaper, noting the chaos in Iraq after the U.S. occupation, accused Washington of "egotistical super arrogance".
Sarkozy said, however, that Western powers hoped diplomacy could change minds: "We are putting pressure on the Russians first and the Chinese afterwards so that they lift their veto.
"You can't continue to massacre a people. The next Syrian government is not up to us but things can't continue like this."
The European Union agreed a further round of economic sanctions on Monday, targeting the Syrian central bank and some ministers, curbing gold trading and banning cargo flights.
Assad's government, which is also backed by Iran, says it is fighting foreign-backed "armed terrorist groups".
While the West dismisses talk of a Libya-style NATO role to support Assad's opponents, Gulf Arab states have pushed for a more forceful stance. Saudi Arabia said on Friday it would back the idea of arming rebels - a proposal likely to alarm Moscow.
"I very much hope the United States and other countries ... do not try to set a military scenario in motion in Syria without sanction from the U.N. Security Council," said Putin, for whom a strong profile in world affairs may play well in Sunday's presidential election, which he is expected to win comfortably.
Clinton told BBC television there was "every possibility" of civil war in Syria. "Outside intervention would not prevent that. It would probably expedite it," she said.
The Syrian government was due to announce the result of the vote on the constitution, which would drop an article making Assad's Baath party the leader of state and society, allow political pluralism and enact a presidential limit of two seven-year terms. A parliamentary poll would be held in three months.
But the presidential term limit is not retrospective, implying that Assad, 46, already in power since 2000, could serve two further terms after his current one expires in 2014.
Diplomats who toured dozens of polling stations in Damascus reported seeing only a handful of voters at each location.
The opposition dismisses the reforms on offer, saying that Assad, and his father who ruled for 30 years before him, have long paid only lip service to existing legal obligations.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the referendum "an important step on the path of reforms" and criticised as "one-sided" Friday's "Friends of Syria" gathering in Tunis at which Western and Arab powers met Syrian opposition leaders.
All sides must end violence, he said: "If it is demanded of the government stop operations to fight militants and the militants have no responsibilities, that is unrealistic."
Opponents of Assad have struggled for unity since the uprising began in March. On Sunday, at least 20 secular and Islamist members of the Syrian National Council broke away on Sunday to form the Syrian Patriotic Group.
BEFORE YOU GO
07/13/2012 1:00 PM EDT
Car Bomb In Damascus
Syrian policemen inspect the site of a car bomb explosion on Mazzeh highway in the capital Damascus on July 13, 2012. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/GettyImages)
07/13/2012 12:00 PM EDT
Susan Rice Condemns Killings
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.
07/13/2012 11:58 AM EDT
Russia Condemns Massacre
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.
07/13/2012 11:55 AM EDT
Footage Of Massacre Aftermath (WARNING: VIDEO CONTAINS DISTURBING IMAGES)
The Associated Press obtained a video that purports to show the aftermath of an alleged massacre in the village of Tramseh, near Hama.
07/13/2012 9:34 AM EDT
How Do Syrian Fighters Get Their Arms?
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.
07/13/2012 9:10 AM EDT
Activists Report New Massacre (WARNING: GRAPHIC PHOTOS)
This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a victim wounded 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. The accounts, some of which claim more than 200 people were killed in the violence Thursday, could not be independently confirmed, but would mark the latest in a string of brutal offensives by Syrian forces attempting to crush the rebellion. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)
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)
07/12/2012 6:50 PM EDT
Hama Revolutionary Council: More Than 220 Killed
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.
07/12/2012 6:17 PM EDT
Syrian State TV: 'Large Numbers Of Terrorists Killed'
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
07/12/2012 5:36 PM EDT
Update: Death Toll In New Massacre Reportedly More Than 200
@ Reuters :
UPDATE: DEATH TOLL IN SYRIAN FORCES' ATTACK ON VILLAGE IN SYRIA'S HAMA REGION IS MORE THAN 200, MOSTLY CIVILIANS - OPPOSITION ACTIVISTS