US suspends operations at embassy in Syria; violence leaves dozens dead in Homs

Added by on February 7, 2012

Syrian government forces pressing a ferocious crackdown shelled the central city of Homs on Monday, opposition activists said, destroying a makeshift clinic and leaving dozens dead in a town that has been a hotbed of anti-government resistance.

The government of President Bashar Assad denied any involvement and said “terrorists” had attacked its forces.

In Washington, the State Department announced that it was suspending operations at the U.S. Embassy in the Syrian capital of Damascus because of “growing safety risks.” Ambassador Robert Ford and all other U.S. personnel have left the country.

The department said in a statement that the recent surge in violence, including bombings in Damascus on Dec. 23 and Jan. 6, had raised “serious concerns” about the safety of the embassy and that Syrian authorities had “failed to respond adequately” to requests for more security help.

Ford would continue serving as U.S. representative to Syria from Washington, the department said.

Violence has been escalating in Syria as Assad government forces confront Army defectors and other armed rebels seeking Assad’s ouster. The city of Homs has long been the scene of street battles, but the opposition says that government attacks have intensified in recent days.

Late Friday, the opposition says, the government unleashed a mortar barrage on Homs’ Khaldiya neighborhood, killing some 200 people in the heaviest one-day casualty toll during the nearly 11-month conflict. On Monday, opposition activists say, the bombardment started shortly after dawn in Babr Amro, another bastion of anti-Assad resistance.

“It’s a massacre in the true meaning of the word,” said one witness by telephone who asked not to be identified for security reasons.

Among the structures destroyed, opposition activists said, was a field hospital where the wounded were being treated.

At least 74 people were killed throughout Syria on Monday, including 47 in Homs, according to the Local Coordinating Committees, an opposition coalition. The group reported other clashes and killings in the suburbs outside Damascus. There was no way to verify the numbers killed.

Oppositon groups said the collapse on Saturday of a U.N. resolution endorsing a plan for Assad to cede power has emboldened Syrian authorities to push their crackdown. Russia and China vetoed the measure, calling it a strike against Syria’s sovereignty. Diplomats warned Syria not to take advantage of the lack of a deal to step up attacks.

“The lack of agreement in the Security Council gives no license to the Syrian authorities to step up attacks on the Syrian population,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement. The government denies any such attacks.

The State Department again urged world powers to support a diplomatic plan laid out by the Arab League, which calls for Assad to turn over his powers to a deputy to open the way to a democratic government.