By Alistair Lyon
BEIRUT, March 1 (Reuters) - Elite Syrian forces trying to destroy rebels besieged in Homs pounded the shattered district of Baba Amro on Thursday, despite international alarm at the plight of civilians trapped there.
Snow blanketed the city, slowing down the military assault, but also worsening conditions for civilians, activists said.
"We have not seen such snow in Homs in years. The bombardment on Baba Amro and other parts of the city is continuing but the fighting has subsided after the army was repelled yesterday," activist Abu Imad said from Homs.
He said casualties on both sides had been heavy, but no tally was available because of the fighting and bad weather.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is increasingly isolated in his struggle to crush an armed insurrection that now spearheads an almost year-long uprising against his 11-year rule.
But Russia, China and Cuba voted against a resolution, adopted overwhelmingly by the 47-member U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, that condemned Syria for violations that may amount to crimes against humanity.
A senior official in the rebel Free Syrian Army told Reuters that outgunned fighters in Baba Amro were fending off more than 7,000 government troops. Opposition forces had promised to step up attacks elsewhere in Syria to try to relieve the pressure.
"Baba Amro will be the straw that will break the regime's back," Mohaimen al-Rumaid said from an area in Turkey near the Syrian border. "All of Syria is turning into Baba Amro."
Heavy shelling resumed overnight after several hours of sporadic bombardment, opposition sources in the city said.
The exile opposition Syrian National Council said on Thursday it had formed a military council to oversee and organise armed anti-Assad groups under a unified leadership.
"The creation of the military council was agreed upon by all armed forces in Syria," SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun told a news conference in Paris. "We will be like a defence ministry."
The SNC has been under pressure from within Syria for not overtly backing the armed struggle led by the Free Syrian Army, made up of army deserters and other insurgents.
With Assad's forces closing in rebels in Homs, the SNC appealed for help late on Wednesday, urging the U.N.-Arab League envoy on Syria, Kofi Annan, to go to Baba Amro "tonight".
Annan said in New York he expected to visit Syria soon and urged Assad to engage with efforts to end the turmoil.
Syria, which denied entry this week to U.N. humanitarian aid chief Valerie Amos, adopted a guarded approach to Annan's role.
The state news agency SANA quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad al-Maqdisi as saying the government was "waiting for a clarification from the U.N. on the nature of his mission".
The Foreign Ministry also said Amos had asked to come at an "inconvenient" time, but that it was ready to discuss a new date for her to visit.
The ground assault on Baba Amro followed more than three weeks in which besieging forces have battered the enclave and other rebel districts with rockets, shells and mortar rounds.
But Rumaid, a member of the Higher Military Council overseeing the Free Syrian Army, said the lightly armed rebels using assault rifles, mortars and machineguns were holding out.
"Infantry fighting goes on. The men are still resisting and Assad's army is shelling Baba Amro but it has not gone deep beyond its perimeters," he said.
Reports from the city could not immediately be verified due to tight government restrictions on media work in Syria, where Assad is facing the gravest challenge of his 11-year rule.
Activists in Homs said it was in desperate shape, without power or telephone services. Water, fuel and food were also in short supply.
"Homs is cut off from the world," an activist statement said. "Martyrs are being buried in gardens and public parks because the presence of army snipers prevents taking them to cemeteries."
It said hospitals were only treating pro-Assad militiamen, while makeshift medical centres had run out of medicine.
"Doctors and nurses who used to serve in the makeshift hospitals and clinics are no longer there because of the raids on these facilities and the threat that their families will be killed," the statement said.
Western and Arab governments, which have already called on Assad to step down and end the bloodshed, expressed mounting concern for the fate of civilians trapped in Homs.
"I am appalled by reports that the Assad regime is preparing a full-scale land assault on the people of Homs," Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague said.
Britain has withdrawn all diplomatic staff from Syria and suspended services at its embassy in Damascus in response to worsening security in the country, a diplomat said on Thursday.
Russia, which along with China, has shielded Syria from U.N. Security Council action, is emerging as a pivotal player in diplomacy aimed at halting the bloodshed and relieving the humanitarian plight of civilians caught in conflict zones.
Moscow has invited Annan for talks on Syria and, according to Kuwaiti officials, will send Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to meet his Gulf Arab counterparts in Riyadh next week.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have led calls for the world to arm Syrian rebels following last month's Russian-Chinese veto of a draft U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria.
Syria's Maqdisi told Lebanon's Hezbollah-run al-Manar television that the Saudis and Qataris were "singing from the same hymn sheet" as al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, who has urged Arabs and Muslims to support anti-Assad insurgents.
Kuwait's parliament, dominated by Islamists, said it had agreed to support the Free Syrian Army and urged the Kuwaiti government to cut relations with Syria.
The United States and its allies are seeking a new Security Council resolution on Syria, which Western envoys said would focus on humanitarian problems to try to win Chinese and Russian support, but would also suggest Assad was to blame for the crisis, a stance Moscow has opposed.
The United Nations says Assad's security forces have killed more than 7,500 civilians since the revolt began last March. Syria's government said in December that "armed terrorists" had killed more than 2,000 soldiers and police during the unrest. (Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Angus MacSwan)
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