Turkey closes Syria embassy, Homs shelled again
BEIRUT, March 26 — Turkey closed its embassy in Syria today, further isolating President Bashar al-Assad, whose forces again bombarded the battered city of Homs with mortars in an effort to quell unrest.
Video showed towering flames and thick black smoke billowing from at least two locations in Homs, Syria’s third largest city, which has become the epicentre for the year-long revolt. Residents accused the army of indiscriminate shelling.
“Every day the shelling goes on. The regime is wiping out the city,” said Waleed Faris, an activist who lives in Homs.
Following the example of many Arab and Western states, Turkey said it had suspended all activities at its embassy as the security situation worsened.
Once a close ally of Assad, Turkey has denounced his efforts to crush the rebellion and has thrown its weight behind his opponents, announcing on Sunday that it would work with Washington to provide “non-lethal” aid to the Syrian opposition.
Kofi Annan, the joint envoy for the United Nations and Arab League, was due to fly to China later in the day as part of an effort to persuade all major powers to put pressure on Assad to accept the terms of his six-point peace plan.
Annan met Russian leaders yesterday and won assurances that Moscow was fully behind his initiative, which calls for Assad to back a ceasefire and let in humanitarian aid, but does not demand that he quit - something Western powers are pushing for.
Both Russia and China have previously vetoed UN Security Council resolutions highly critical of Damascus, drawing accusations that they were giving Assad a licence to kill.
They argue that the West is too one-sided, but have given full public backing to Annan’s mission.
Army kills “terrorists”
The United Nations says at least 8,000 people, including many women and children, have died in the uprising and human rights groups have accused the government of repeated brutality.
Syria says 3,000 security personnel have died, and accuses “terrorists” and their foreign backers of fomenting the trouble.
The official news agency Sana said soldiers had killed “six of the most dangerous wanted terrorists” in a raid in the southern province of Deraa. They also thwarted a bid to blow up the al-Najih Bridge on the Damascus-Deraa highway, it said.
The authorities rarely allow Western journalists into Syria, making it hard to verify such reports.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there had been army raids and arrests today in the north-eastern city of Deir al-Zor, on the road to Iraq, and the suburbs of Deraa, which lies close to the border with Jordan.
Western and Arab leaders are due to meet in Istanbul yesterday to discuss a political transition, and the Arab League and Turkey were pressing various parts of the Syrian opposition to gather in the city today and tomorrow to try to unite.
Deep divisions within opposition ranks have hobbled efforts to draw up a powerful anti-Assad front, and irritated Western leaders eager to find a reliable partner.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who was to join US President Barack Obama at a nuclear security summit in South Korea today, gave warm backing to Annan yesterday.
“This may be the last chance for Syria to avoid a long-lasting and bloody civil war. Therefore we will offer you our full support at any level and in various ways in those areas, of course, in which Russia is capable of providing support.”
But Moscow also suggested that foreign support for Assad’s foes was the main obstacle to peace.
Obama discussed how to get non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition yesterday with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. This would include medical and communications equipment, not arms, officials said.
Annan is due to arrive in China tomorrow. — Reuters