Syria ignored a new Arab initiative to end the bloodshed, with its troops pounding the protest hub of Homs on Monday as Russia said a ceasefire is needed before peacekeepers can be deployed.
The pan-Arab bloc agreed on Sunday to ask the United Nations to send a joint peacekeeping force to Syria, where activists say more than 6,000 people have died in a brutal crackdown on dissent since March last year.
The embattled government of President Bashar al-Assad swiftly rejected the initiative.
And within hours of the Arab League decision, Assad’s troops resumed shelling Baba Amr, a rebel bastion in the beleaguered central city of Homs, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“The neighbourhood of Baba Amr has been subjected to sporadic shelling since 5:00 am (0300 GMT) by the Syrian army,” the Britain-based Observatory said in a statement sent to AFP.
Forces also raided homes to arrest people at Basra al-Sham in Daraa province, cradle of the Arab Spring-inspired 11-month uprising against Assad’s iron-fisted rule.
“There were fierce clashes between defectors and the army which stormed Lajat (also in Daraa province) and arrested the mothers of four dissidents,” the Observatory said.
A government official said that Syria was determined to crush dissent, regardless of the latest Arab League initiatives, the official SANA news agency reported.
“This decision will not prevent the Syrian government from fulfilling its responsibilities in protecting its citizens and restoring security and stability,” the unidentified official was quoted as saying.
“Syria rejects decisions that are a flagrant interference in the country’s internal affairs and a violation of its national sovereignty.”
Activists say Assad’s forces have killed at least 500 people in Homs since they began attacking the central city with a barrage of tank shells, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades on February 4.
On the same day Russia and China vetoed the Security Council resolution on Syria.
That moved prompted the Arab League to ask the United Nations for a joint Arab-UN peacekeeping mission to the strife-torn country.
The initiative was on Monday welcomed by Britain, Germany, Italy and the European Union. Russia said it was studying the plan, while cautioning that it had questions about certain points.
“We are studying this initiative and expect our friends from the Arab states to provide us with a clarification of certain points,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
“In order to deploy a peacekeeping mission, you need the agreement of the receiving side.
“In other words, you need to agree something resembling a ceasefire. But the problem is that the armed groups that are fighting the Syrian regime do not answer to anyone and are not controlled by anyone.”
In London, Foreign Secretary William Hague said Britain would have urgent talks with the Arab League over its peacekeepers proposal.
Hague also welcomed the League decision to endorse a “Friends of Syria” group, including Britain, which will meet in Tunisia on February 24.
German foreign ministry spokesman Andreas Peschke told reporters the leading role of the Arab League “is important to settle the Syrian crisis.”
League chief Nabil al-Arabi is due in Berlin on Tuesday to meet Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The European Union also backed the plan.
“We welcome these bold decisions and the strong and clear commitment and leadership that the Arab League is taking to resolve the crisis in Syria,” said Michael Mann, spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
The Arab League adopted the initiative at its headquarters in Cairo after marathon talks on Sunday.
Arab League diplomats “will open channels of communication with the Syrian opposition and offer full political and financial support, urging (the opposition) to unify its ranks,” said a League statement obtained by AFP.
They would also “ask the UN Security Council to issue a decision on the formation of a joint UN-Arab peacekeeping force to oversee the implementation of a ceasefire.”
Syria’s ambassador to Cairo denounced the measures, which only Algeria and Lebanon expressed reservations about.
“The Syrian Arab Republic categorically rejects the decisions of the Arab League,” which “reflects the hysteria of these governments” after failing to get foreign intervention at the UN Security Council, Yusef Ahmed said.
Burhan Ghalioun, leader of the opposition Syrian National Council, welcomed the moves as “a first step” towards the fall of Assad’s regime.
The United States said it was bringing “pressure to bear” on Syria, along with its allies, and that “this regime will come to an end.”
As the military pressed its onslaught on Homs, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and International Committee of the Red Cross said their “volunteers are distributing food, medical supplies, blankets, and hygiene consumables to thousands of people” in the city.
“The population, particularly the wounded and sick, are bearing the brunt of the violence,” said the ICRC’s Marianne Gasser.