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As Syrian troops shell Homs intensively, Britain and France look for ways to aid opposition
BEIRUT (AP) ' Syrian troops intensively shelled rebel-held neighborhoods in the restive central city of Homs Friday and killed at least five people, activists said. Britain and France urged the opposition to unite and said it needs more international support to resist the deadly government crackdown.
Activist groups said tens of thousands of protesters poured into the streets after Friday prayers from Daraa in the south to Aleppo and Idlib in the north and Deir el-Zour in the east to areas around the capital Damascus. The Local Coordination Committees said security forces opened fire on some protests.
"What is happening in Syria is appalling," British Cameron Prime Minister David Cameron told a joint news conference in Paris with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. "I'm not satisfied that we are taking all the action we can." The two leaders spoke a day after the U.N. General Assembly condemned human rights violations by President Bashar Assad's authoritarian regime.
"We cannot bring about a Syrian revolution ... if the Syrian revolution does not make an effort to rally together and organize so that we can better help them," Sarkozy said. He insisted, however, that "the revolution will not be brought about from outside, it will be brought about from the inside."
Cameron said Britain and France are working "to see what more we can do" to help the Syrian opposition.
In a joint statement, Cameron and Sarkozy pledged that their countries "will continue to increase their engagement with the Syrian opposition, including encouraging the opposition to work together and to support the vision of an inclusive, prosperous and free Syria. "
They urged the European Union to adopt new sanctions against the regime by Feb. 27 and offer "substantial" aid to Syria if and when Assad leaves.
Cameron also said Britain is sending food rations for 20,000 people and medical supplies for those affected by fighting in Homs and elsewhere in Syria.
The aid will include emergency drinking water and essential household items for refugees forced to leave their homes because of fighting in areas where humanitarian agencies are struggling to work freely amid government restrictions on movement.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said shells slammed into the Homs neighborhoods of Baba Amr, Bayadah, Khaldiyeh and Inshaat, killing at least five people. Syrian troops have been attacking the neighborhoods since Feb. 4. Amateur videos showed at least one tank shelling Baba Amr from close by.
Homs, a province in central Syria that stretches from the border with Lebanon in the west to the frontiers with Iraq and Jordan in the east, has been one of the key centers of the 11-month-old uprising against Assad. As the uprising has become more militarized in recent months with army defectors battling regime forces almost daily, the rebels have taken control of small parts of the province including neighborhoods in the city of Homs and the nearby town of Rastan.
The Observatory said security forces opened fire at protesters in the Damascus neighborhood of Mazzeh, killing one person and wounding 12. The group said another protester was shot dead in the province of Aleppo. It added that one of the biggest protests was in the southern village of Dael, where more than 10,000 marched calling for Assad's downfall.
The Observatory also reported clashes between troops and defectors in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, saying one civilian and one of the regime forces were killed.
State-run news agency, SANA, quoted Assad as telling visiting Mauritanian Prime Moulaye Ould Mohamed Laghdaf that political reforms in Syria "will move in parallel with restoring security and stability." It was another clear sign that Assad's regime will continue in its crackdown.
In neighboring Lebanon, security officials said two Lebanese farmers were wounded in the border village of Qaa after they were hit by bullets coming from the Syrian side.
On Thursday, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon accused the Syrian regime of committing "almost certain" crimes against humanity. The U.N. General Assembly also overwhelmingly voted for a resolution that strongly condemns human rights violations by Assad's government. According to the U.N., more than 5,400 people have been killed since March in the regime's bloody crackdown.
The 193-member U.N. General Assembly voted 137-12 on the Arab-sponsored resolution calling on Assad to hand power to his vice president and immediately stop the crackdown. There were 17 abstentions.
Though there are no vetoes in the General Assembly and its resolutions are nonbinding, they do reflect world opinion on major issues. Russia and China, who recently vetoed a similar resolution in the U.N. Security Council, voted against the General Assembly measure along with North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba and others who heeded Syria's appeal against the measure.
Thursday's high number of "yes" votes was the strongest international condemnation so far of Assad.
"Today, the U.N. General Assembly sent a clear message to the people of Syria: The world is with you," U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said. Assad "has never been more isolated. A rapid transition to democracy in Syria has garnered the resounding support of the international community. Change must now come."
In other developments, state-run news agency SANA said that the command of the ruling Baath party has postponed its general conference scheduled for later this month until after a referendum on the country's new draft constitution is done. It did not say when the conference, last convened in 2005, will be held. It was the second postponement.
On Wednesday, Assad ordered a Feb. 26 referendum on a new constitution that would create a multiparty system in Syria, which has been ruled by the Assad family for 40 years. Such a change would have been unheard of a year ago, and Assad's regime is touting the new constitution as the centerpiece of reforms aimed at calming Syria's upheaval.
Bassem Mroue can be reached on twitter at http://twitter.com/bmroue