By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
AMMAN, Feb 28 (Reuters) - Syrian forces shelled an opposition stronghold in Hama province, killing 20 people, on Tuesday and hit rebel-held parts of Homs, activists said, as two wounded foreign journalists trapped in the city were reported to have been smuggled safely to Lebanon.
President Bashar al-Assad sent units of an elite armoured division, which is led by his brother Maher, into Homs overnight, activists said. Tanks with the words "Fourth Division Monsters" painted on them moved close to the besieged Baba Amro district.
French journalist Edith Bouvier and British photographer Paul Conroy, both wounded last week in an attack in Baba Amro, were now safe in Lebanon, a diplomat and opposition sources said. It was not clear how they escaped.
In Hama province, security forces bombarded the town of Helfaya, a hotbed of protests in the uprising against Assad.
Activists said the 20 deaths of Sunni Muslim villagers there were among at least 100 killed in the province in the last two weeks in revenge for rebel Free Syrian Army attacks on security forces commanded by members of Assad's minority Alawite sect.
The reports could not be independently confirmed. Syrian authorities tightly restrict media access to the country.
Opposition groups say hundreds of civilians have been killed or wounded in the siege of Baba Amro and other rebellious districts in Homs, where terrified residents are enduring dire conditions, without proper supplies of water, food and medicine.
Syrian forces on Tuesday launched the heaviest bombardment in their three-week assault on Baba Amro, activists said.
Assad, projecting an aura of normality in a land ravaged by 11 months of conflict over his right to power, decreed that a new constitution was in force on Tuesday after officials said nearly 90 percent of voters had endorsed it in a referendum.
Opposition groups and Western leaders seeking Assad's removal denounced Sunday's vote as a charade that diverted attention from the violence in Homs and elsewhere.
Assad's government had "broken all the limits of barbarism". French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said.
"And when I see the Syrian president paraded around this voting station in Damascus for this phony referendum, it makes you deeply indignant," he told RTL radio.
Juppe said he felt "immensely frustrated" at difficulties in obtaining security guarantees to enable wounded civilians and Western journalists to be evacuated from Homs.
American reporter Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik were killed in Baba Amro on Feb. 22 in a strike on a house in which Conroy and Bouvier were wounded.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent did manage to evacuate three people from Baba Amro on Monday, but not the foreign reporters, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said.
The outside world has proved powerless to halt the killing in Syria, where repression of initially peaceful protests has spawned an armed insurrection by army deserters and others.
"As long as we have not halted the massacres, we are impotent, but we are not inactive," Juppe said.
He told the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday it was time to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court and warned Assad he would be brought to justice.
Foreign powers have argued over whether to arm Syrian rebels trying to resist Assad's forces, but there is little appetite in the West for any Libya-style military intervention.
Russia and China have used their vetoes to protect Syria from any action by the U.N. Security Council, where Western and Arab powers had sought backing for an Arab League transition plan under which Assad would voluntarily relinquish office.
Qatar joined Saudi Arabia on Monday in advocating arming the Syrian rebels. "We should do whatever is necessary to help them, including giving them weapons to defend themselves," Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said in Oslo.
Assad says he is battling a foreign conspiracy featuring "armed terrorist groups" and al Qaeda militants, while pressing ahead with political reforms toward greater democracy.
His opponents scorn his calls for dialogue as meaningless while Syrian security forces are violently repressing dissent.
The Syrian leader says the new constitution will lead to multi-party elections within three months.
The document drops a clause making Syria's Baath party the leader of state and society, allows political pluralism and limits a president to two seven-year terms.
But this restriction is not retroactive, implying that Assad, 46 and already in power since 2000, could serve two further terms after his current one expires in 2014.
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. (Additional reporting by Dominic Evans, Erika Solomon and Mariam Karouny in Beirut; Writing by Alistair Lyon, Editing by Rosalind Russell)
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