More deaths as Syrian forces continue shelling

The fighting in Damascus was the most intense since the uprising against the regime of Bashar Al Assad began 15 months ago.

A handout image released by the Syrian opposition's Shaam News Network shows Syrians lining up to collect bread in Houla, the scene of a massacre last month.
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BEIRUT // At least 30 people died yesterday as Syrian government forces attacked Deraa and Homs and there were renewed clashes in Damascus.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 17 people were killed in intense shelling in Deraa early yesterday, and that the nationwide death toll was 33.

The Local Coordination Committees, a network of opposition activists, reported that many of the dead were from Deraa Balad and that government forces also raided Abtaa in Deraa.

At least nine people were killed in Homs after troops stormed the city amid the sounds of explosions, it said.

The fighting in Damascus was the most intense since the uprising against the regime of Bashar Al Assad began 15 months ago. Witnesses said government tanks opened fire in the streets, with shells slamming into residential buildings.

Maath Al Shami, an opposition activist in the capital, said Friday was "a turning point in the conflict. There were clashes in Damascus that lasted hours. The battle is in Damascus now."

As the fighting continued, leaders of the Syrian National Council met in Istanbul to pick a new leader after the resignation of Burhan Ghalioun last month to avert a split in the opposition bloc.

The favourite for the post is Abdel Basset Sayda, a Kurd and member of the SNC's executive office who lives in exile in Sweden.

On the diplomatic front, Russia said yesterday it would support the departure of Mr Al Assad if Syrians consented to it, without imposing regime change from outside.

"If the Syrians agree on this with each other, we will be only glad to support such an outcome," said Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister. Moscow did not want to "impose the conditions of dialogue".

Mr Lavrov said Russia has growing concerns about the conflict in Syria, but his government's opposition to foreign intervention was "not because we are protecting Assad and his regime.

"We know that Syria is a complicated multi-confessional state, and because we know that some of those calling for military intervention want to ruin this and turn Syria into a battleground for domination in the Islamic world."

Russia also stepped up calls for an international summit that would bring together countries with influence on both sides of the conflict.

While western governments are pushing for tougher new sanctions against the Al Assad regime, the Russians maintain that foreign military intervention or more sanctions would only inflame the crisis.

"Our logic is that it is not necessary now to apply additional pressure, to introduce sanctions or use the threat of force," the deputy foreign minister Gennady said.

"Introducing restrictive or forceful measures … will only aggravate the already difficult atmosphere."

More horrific details emerged yesterday of the aftermath of an apparent massacre of about 80 men, women and children in Qubeir. United Nations observers visited the small village near Hama on Friday after reports of the latest mass killing, which is believed to have taken place last Wednesday.

Sausan Ghosheh, a UN spokeswoman, said the observers could smell the stench of burnt corpses and saw body parts scattered around the deserted village. The scene held evidence of a "horrific crime", she said, but local accounts of the killings were "conflicting" and they needed to cross-check the names of the missing and dead.

The Syrian government has blamed rebel groups for the killings, while opposition groups held militia loyal to the regime, known as shabeeha, responsible for the massacre.

Syria's state news agency, Sana, yesterday reported the burials of 57 civilians and members of the security forces. It said the dead had been targeted by "armed terrorist groups".

Meanwhile Syrian rebels holding 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims hostage have said that the men would be released when Syria is a "civil state".

The group also left the door open for negotiations and said that the hostages were in good health. Al Jazeera broadcast a video in which the men, who appeared relaxed, said they were being treated well.

"The guests will be released by the Syrian civil state when their case is reviewed by a new democratic parliament," the rebels said. "But given the current conditions it may be possible to negotiate their release with neighbouring countries."

The 11 pilgrims have been held since May 22, when they were abducted by gunmen in the province of Aleppo as they travelled by bus back to Lebanon through Syria after a pilgrimage to Iran.

* Additional reporting by Reuters and the Associated Press