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Published: Saturday, 1/28/2012

Turmoil escalates in Syria; 74 killed

BLADE NEWS SERVICES

BEIRUT -- Two days of bloody turmoil in Syria killed at least 74 people, including children, as forces loyal to President Bashar Assad shelled residential buildings and fired on crowds in a dramatic escalation of violence, activists said Friday.

The U.N. Security Council met in a closed-door session to discuss the crisis, which diplomats said was a step toward a possible U.N. resolution against the Damascus regime. Any resolution faces opposition from China and Russia; both nations have veto power.

Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, said a European-Arab draft resolution on Syria circulated Friday was unacceptable in parts, but Russia was ready to "engage" on it.

He made no explicit threat to veto the draft resolution.

Mr. Churkin said Russia opposed the idea of an arms embargo and sanctions on Syria -- neither of which is included in the draft resolution.

Diplomats said China's envoy also warned council members behind closed doors against imposing an arms embargo or supporting the use of force against Syria.

French Ambassador Gerard Araud and British envoy Mark Lyall Grant said they want the resolution put to a vote next week.

The resolution asks the council to endorse the Arab League's call for Mr. Assad to transfer power to his deputy as a first step toward forming a unity government and preparing for elections.

France and Britain crafted the resolution in consultation with Qatar and Morocco as well as Germany, Portugal, and the United States.

Syrian Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari lashed out at Western countries he said were "repeating the same mistakes" they had made in Libya and elsewhere. "Syria will not be Libya," he said. "Syria will not be Iraq. Syria will not be Somalia."

Much of the violence the last two days in Syria has focused on the city of Homs, which was pounded by heavy gunfire Friday. A day earlier, the city had a flare-up of sectarian kidnappings and killings between its Sunnis and Alawites, and pro-regime forces blasted residential buildings with mortars and gunfire, according to activists.

As of Jan. 7, at least 384 children have been killed in the crackdown on Syria's uprising that began nearly 11 months ago, the U.N. children's agency UNICEF said.

The count, based on reports from human rights groups, included children under age 18. Most of the deaths were in Homs and most victims were boys, UNICEF said. It said 380 children have been detained, including some under age 14.

The United Nations estimates more than 5,400 people have died in the turmoil.

The uprising, which began in March with mostly peaceful protests, has turned increasingly violent in recent months as army defectors clash with government forces and some protesters take up arms to protect themselves.

Activists said at least 35 people were killed in Homs on Thursday; 39 more were killed across the country Friday.

The Assad regime says terrorists acting out a conspiracy by the United States, Israel, and Gulf Arab countries -- not protesters seeking change -- are behind the uprising.

The leader of the Arab League's observers in Syria said violence has spiked the past few days. Sudanese Gen. Mohammed Ahmed al-Dabi said the cities of Homs, Hama, and Idlib all witnessed a "very high escalation" in violence since Tuesday.

A "fierce military campaign" was under way in Hama's Hamadiyeh district since early Friday, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and other activists.

Some activists reported seeing bodies in Hama's streets.

Details of the wave of killings in Homs emerged from residents and activists.

"There has been a terrifying massacre," Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said.

Meanwhile, Khaled Meshal, leader of the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, has effectively abandoned his longtime base in Syria. "The situation there does not allow the leadership to be present," a Hamas official in Gaza said. "There are no more Hamas leaders in Damascus."

The official and others, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Hamas leaders had left the Syrian capital because of security concerns.

But they said Hamas had not yet made a decision about closing its Syrian offices or where to move headquarters.



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