Death Toll Is Said to Rise in Syrian City of Homs – By ANTHONY SHADID
Published: February 4, 2012
BEIRUT — Syria opposition leaders raised the death toll to 260 in a military assault Saturday on the ravaged central city of Homs, an attack that opposition leaders described as the government’s deadliest in the nearly 11-month-old uprising.
Reports were contradictory, given the difficulty of communications with Homs, and the Syrian government flatly denied the toll, calling it an attempt at propaganda ahead of a United Nations Security Council meeting Saturday on Syria. But videos smuggled out of the city and reports by opposition activists showed a harrowing barrage of mortar shells and gunfire that left hundreds more wounded in the city.
“It’s an unprecedented attack,” said Mohammed Saleh, an opposition activist from Homs who recently fled to a nearby town to escape the mounting strife there.
As word spread of the barrage, opposition protests broke out Saturday at Syrian embassies around the world, including Egypt, Germany and Kuwait.
Accounts by activists, independently basing their information on what they described as contacts in Homs, said the barrage was apparently unleashed after defectors attacked two military checkpoints and kidnapped soldiers. One activist put the number of abducted soldiers at 13, another 19. They suggested that enraged commanders then ordered the assault, which lasted from about 9 p.m. Friday to 1 a.m. Saturday, focusing on the neighborhood of Khaldiya. Five other neighborhoods were also assaulted.
At one point, a resident said, people left the top floors of residential buildings, fearful that shelling they described as random would wreck their homes.
The precise number of dead was almost impossible to obtain. The Syrian National Council, which has sought to act as an umbrella group for the opposition, said more than 260 were killed. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the toll in Khaldiya and the other neighborhoods was 217. Both groups, along with other activists, said the wounded numbered in the hundreds, though again, there was no specific number.
One opposition activist said the Syrian military suffered casualties, too.
“It’s a real massacre in every sense of the word,” said a resident in Khaldiya, who gave his name as Abu Jihad. “I saw bodies of women and children lying on roads beheaded. It’s horrible and inhuman. It was a long night helping people get to hospitals.”
As it has since the uprising started, the Syrian government accused media and activists of fantastically exaggerating the toll. In a report Saturday on the Syrian state news agency, SANA, it complained of “frenetic media campaigns against Syria disseminating false information about Syria Army shelling of civilians in different blamed Arab satellite channels for inflaming the strife in different Syrian governorates.”
The agency, citing its correspondents across the country, declared that “life is normal in the Damascus countryside, Hama and Homs.”
Near the border with Lebanon, in western Syria, Homs has been a critical hub of the uprising, which stands as one of the bloodiest of the Arab world’s revolts. The city mirrors Syria’s own diversity, with a Sunni Muslim majority that has backed the uprising. But at least three neighborhoods are populated largely by Alawites, a heterodox strain of Islam that provides much of the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
In past months, sectarian strife there has dangerously intensified, offering a grim window on what a broader civil war could look like in Syria. Though protests started peacefully there, defectors have begun operating checkpoints, and tit-for-tat kidnappings and killings have paralyzed parts of the city, where something as simple as the choice of a television news station can belie a person’s loyalty. Some activists have tried to bridge the sectarian divide, but even they fear the violence may overwhelm those attempts.
“The army has weapons, and the people have weapons,” one opposition activist said on condition of anonymity, recounting Saturday’s bloodshed. “Syria is finished for me. It is a civil war and nothing will save us anymore.”
Funerals took place Saturday in Homs, as a relative calm was reported in the city. At one funeral for 20 people, a resident said, armed defectors were offering protection.
The bloodshed reverberated around the world, demonstrating the power of social media. As reports of the mounting toll were carried by Twitter and Facebook, protests gathered at Syrian missions in the Middle East and Europe. As many as 100 demonstrators stormed the Syrian embassy in Cairo at about 3 a.m. Saturday, tearing its iron gate off it hinges, burning parts of the first floor, and demolishing much of the ambassador’s office. By the morning, the floors were littered with broken glass, furniture that was torn apart or burned and the detritus of office equipment.
It was the second time in two weeks protesters had breached the embassy, but the previous attack had destroyed not much more than framed pictures of Mr. Assad.
Amman Arsan, the embassy’s media counselor, said he saw no connection between the events in Homs and what he called “the terrorist attack” on the Cairo mission. « The Syrian army is conducting an operation against terrorist groups in Hama and Homs,” he said. “This is a crime. Nothing in the whole world justifies this.”
The simultaneous attacks on Syrian embassies in Berlin, Kuwait, Amman, Cairo and elsewhere, he said, was evidence of a coordinated assault by Syria’s enemies.
Nada Bakri and Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, and David D. Kirkpatrick from Cairo.