BEIRUT

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33.8833333333
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35.5

This image, made from amateur video released by Douma City and accessed Thursday, purports to show Syrian military tanks at te Damascus suburb of Dourma, Syria.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BEIRUT — U.N. observers on Thursday inspected the site of an explosion that flattened a block of houses in the central Syrian city of Hama and killed at least 16 people, while the government and the opposition traded blame over the cause of the blast.

Syrian state-run media said rebel bomb-makers accidentally set off the explosives. Anti-regime activists said intense shelling by government forces caused the extensive damage. It was impossible to independently verify the conflicting accounts because President Bashar Assad’s regime, facing a 13-month-old uprising, has restricted access for journalists and other outside witnesses.

The spokesman for U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan, Ahmad Fawzi, said observers visited the site but he had no immediate word on what they saw.

Two U.N. observers are stationed in Hama, part of an advance team of 15 monitors who are visiting hot spots to try to salvage a cease-fire that is part of a peace plan aimed at ending the violence and bringing the two sides to the negotiating table. The observer team is to be expanded in the coming weeks to up to 300.

Amateur videos said to be of Wednesday’s blasts in Hama showed a large cloud of white and yellow smoke rising from a neighborhood surrounded by green fields. In a later video, dozens of people searched through the debris, including huge chunks of cement and broken cinderblocks. Another clip shows the bloodied body of a little girl being carried through a crowd of wailing men.

The state-run Syrian news agency SANA said rebels mishandling explosives triggered a blast that killed at least 16 people and severely damaged at least six houses.

The Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists, denied that and said it was intense shelling from government tanks that caused the damage. The group put the death toll as high as 70, but that estimate was not confirmed by others.

Another opposition group, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the cause of the destruction was not immediately clear. The Observatory initially cited reports by local residents that they had come under attack from regime forces.

However, the head of the group, Rami Abdul-Rahman, said he could not confirm those reports and called for an investigation by U.N. observers. He said at least 16 people were killed.

With the violence in Syria continuing despite U.N.-led efforts to implement the truce, the international community has grown increasingly impatient with the Assad regime.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon demanded Thursday that the Syrian government immediately comply with its commitment to withdraw troops and heavy weapons from cities and towns, said U.N. deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, condemned the Syrian government’s continuing intense use of heavy weapons in Hama and elsewhere.

Rice also said Wednesday’s Hama explosion appeared to be “the result of intense shelling” though she couldn’t say this with certainty.

Russia, one of the regime’s main allies, said violations of the cease-fire were still being committed by both sides, but blamed the opposition overall.

“Most often this occurs because of provocative actions from the armed opposition, which often force the Syrian security forces to open fire in response,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said. Still, he added, the level of violence in the country has declined considerably since the observers arrived.

“All of this allows us to claim that the situation in Syria is starting to improve slightly, although this is a very fragile trend,” he added.

The United Nations has so far negotiated for countries to provide 100 unarmed truce monitors to be on the ground in Syria, in addition to civilian support staff, within 30 days of the April 12 cease-fire, a U.N. official said Thursday. But he said differences between politicians and military officials in potential contributing nations have slowed the negotiations for more troops. He did not elaborate.

The official said the U.N. will announce Friday that Norwegian Maj. Gen. Robert Mood is being appointed to lead the team of U.N. observers. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the announcement has not yet been made.

Bassma Kodmani, a spokeswoman for the opposition Syrian National Council, called Thursday for a unified Arab stand against what she said was Damascus’ failure to honor terms of Annan’s peace plan. She urged the Arab League to “open the door” to a U.N. Security Council resolution that would create safe havens in Syria and allow international relief agencies to operate there freely.

The Arab League later said it would ask the U.N. Security Council to “review” its policy on Syria if the regime there fails to fully and immediately honor its commitment to a cease-fire.

A statement by Arab foreign ministers meeting Thursday in Cairo said the Damascus regime was negotiating while simultaneously “killing its own people.” It said Morocco, currently a member of the 15-nation U.N. Security Council, to convey the League’s request when the world body meets to discuss Syria on May 5.

Arab countries are divided over how to deal with the Syrian crisis, with Gulf countries led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia in favor of arming the opposition and others like Egypt, Iraq and Sudan preferring a diplomatic solution.

For now, the international community remains united in support of Annan’s plan, which calls for a cease-fire, to be followed by talks between the regime and the opposition on a political solution to the conflict that the U.N. says has killed more than 9,000 people.

That plan, however, has been troubled from the start. Syria has failed to enact key parts of the plan, like withdrawing its forces from cities, and its troops have attacked opposition areas, killing scores of civilians since the truce was to begin on April 12. Rebel fighters, too, have attacked military checkpoints and convoys.

Syria’s information minister said Thursday that armed terrorist groups have stepped up their attacks since Annan’s peace plan went into effect, adding that they have breached the cease-fire plan more than 1,300 times. Adnan Mahmoud said Annan has been informed of those violations.

Associated Press writers Karin Laub in Beirut, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Frank Jordans in Geneva contributed to this report.

Printed on Friday, April 27. 2012 as: Syrian Rebels, regime trade blame for explosion

The dead body of anti-Syrian regime protester is seen wrapped by the Syrian revolution flag and according to Syrian activists that was killed by the Syrian security forces during a demonstration, at Mazzeh district in Damascus, Syria on Monday. Syrian security forces fired live rounds and tear gas Saturday at thousands of people marching in a funeral procession that turned into one of the largest protests in Damascus since the 11-month uprising against President Bashar Assad began.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BEIRUT — Syrian tanks and troops massed Monday outside the resistance stronghold of Homs for a possible ground assault that one activist warned could unleash a new round of fierce and bloody urban combat even as the Red Cross tried to broker a cease-fire to allow emergency aid in.

A flood of military reinforcements has been a prelude to previous offensives by President Bashar Assad’s regime, which has tried to use its overwhelming firepower to crush an opposition that has been bolstered by defecting soldiers and hardened by 11 months of street battles.

“The human loss is going to be huge if they retake Baba Amr,” said Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The central city of Homs — and in particular the opposition district known as Baba Amr — has become a critical ground for both sides.

The opposition has lionized it as “Syria’s Misrata” after the Libyan city where rebels fought off a brutal government siege. Assad’s regime wants desperately to erase the embarrassing defiance in Syria’s third-largest city after weeks of shelling, including a barrage of mortars that killed up to 200 people earlier this month. At least nine people were killed in shelling Monday, activists said.

Another massive death toll would only bring further international isolation on Assad from Western and Arab leaders.

“The massacre in Syria goes on,” said U.S. Sen. John McCain during a visit to Cairo, where he urged Washington and its allies to find way to help arm and equip Syrian rebels.

McCain, a senior member of the Senate Armed Service Committee, said he did not support direct U.S. weapons supplies to Syrian opposition forces, but has suggested the Arab League or others could help bolster the fighting power of the anti-Assad groups. The U.S., he said, could assist with equipment such as medical supplies or global positioning devices.

“It is time we gave them the wherewithal to fight back and stop the slaughter,” he said.

Assad’s fall also would be a potentially devastating blow for his close ally Iran, which counts on Syria as its most reliable Arab ally and a pathway for aid to Tehran’s patron Hezbollah in Lebanon. But McCain urged for “like-minded” Western and Arab nations also to guard against attempts by al-Qaida or other extremists to exploit a leadership vacuum if the regime crumbles.

“For us to sit back and do nothing while people are being slaughtered ... is an affront to everything America stands for and believes in,” said McCain, suggesting that the Republicans could seek to make Syria a central campaign issue in this year’s U.S. presidential election.

In Cairo, Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby suggested at a news conference in Cairo that Russia and China - two countries that recently supported Damascus by vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Assad’s regime - may be shifting their positions.

“There are some indications, especially from China and to some degree from Russia that there may be a change in their stance,” he said, without elaborating.

Syria-based activist Mustafa Osso told The Associated Press that Assad’s military should face strong resistance as residents plan to fight until “the last person.” He added that Homs is facing “savage shelling that does not differentiate between military or civilians targets.”

The Baba Amr neighborhood on Homs’ southwest edge has become the centerpiece of the city’s opposition. Hundreds of army defectors are thought to be taking shelter, clashing with troops in hit-and-run attacks.

Amateur videos posted online showed what activists said were shells falling into Baba Amr. Black smoke billowed from residential areas. Phone lines and Internet connections have been cut with the city, making it difficult to get firsthand accounts from Homs residents.

In Geneva, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross said the group has been in talks with Syrian authorities and opposition groups to negotiate a cease-fire in the most war-torn areas.

“We are currently discussing several possibilities with all those concerned, and it includes a cessation of fighting in the most affected areas,” the spokeswoman, Carla Haddad, told the AP.

She said the talks weren’t aimed at resolving any of the entrenched political differences. “The idea is to be able to facilitate swift access to people in need,” Haddad said.

Clashes between military rebels and Syrian forces are growing more frequent and the defectors have managed to take control of small pieces of territory in the north as well as parts of Homs province, which is Syria’s largest stretching from the border with Lebanon in the west to Iraq and Jordan in the east. Increasingly, Syria appears to be careening toward an all-out civil war.

Activists believe Assad may be trying to subdue Homs — an important stronghold for anti-Assad groups — before a planned referendum Sunday on a new constitution. The charter would allow a bigger role for political opposition to challenge Assad’s Baath Party, which has controlled Syria since a 1963 coup.

But the leaders of the uprising have dismissed the referendum as an attempt at superficial reforms that do nothing to crack the regime’s hold on power.

“We have called for a boycott of the referendum which cannot be held while parts of Syria are a war zone,” said Omar Idilbi, a Beirut-based member of the opposition Syrian National Council.

The U.N. last gave a death toll for the conflict in January, saying 5,400 had been killed in 2011 alone. But hundreds more have been killed since, according to activist groups. The group Local Coordination Committees says more than 7,300 have been killed since March of last year. There is no way to independently verify the numbers, however, as Syria bans almost all foreign journalists and human rights organizations.

In the western Hama province, troops backed by armored personnel carriers and military buses stormed several villages, conducting raids and arrests. A 32-year-old man was killed by gunfire from a security checkpoint in the area, activists said.

In the Damascus suburb of Douma, thousands of people took part in the funeral of 19-year-old army conscript, Omar Halbouni, whom activists say was executed by the military because he refused to open fire at protesters in Homs a day earlier. It was the third straight day of funeral marches and protests in the tightly controlled regime stronghold.

“Freedom, freedom!” shouted mourners at his funeral, as they paraded his body strewn with flowers on a stretcher near the Abdel Raouf Mosque, said witness Mohammad al-Saeed.

By evening, a few hundred Syrians held an anti-Assad protest in Damascus only few hundred yards away from a major security building. Amateur video posted online showed men and woman shouting: “We will kneel only before God” and other slogans in support of Homs and other Syrian cities.

On Sunday, activists said at least 18 people were killed in Syria, including a senior state prosecutor and a judge who were shot dead by gunmen in the restive northwestern province of Idlib.

Syrian protesters are reflected on a masked protester’s sunglasses as they chant anti-Syrian regime slogans and wave by a Syrian revolution flag outside the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, Egypt on Wednesday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BEIRUT — Army defectors ambushed dozens of Syrian troops and regime forces gunned down civilians during one of the bloodiest days of the 8-month-old uprising, which appeared Tuesday to be spiraling out of President Bashar Assad’s control.

Up to 90 people were killed in a gruesome wave of violence Monday, activists said. The extent of the bloodshed only came to light Tuesday, in part because corpses lying in the streets did not reach the morgue until daylight.

As the bloodshed spiked, Assad’s former allies were turning on him in rapid succession — a sign of profound impatience with a leader who has failed to stem months of unrest that could explode into a regional conflagration.

Turkey, Jordan and the 22-member Arab League all signaled they were fed up with Assad’s response to the uprising and were ready to pressure him to go.

A day earlier, Jordan’s King Abdullah II said Assad should step down, the first Arab leader to publicly make such a call. And over the weekend, the 22-member Arab League took a near-unanimous vote to suspend Damascus from the regional body.

In a sign that Saudi Arabia’s rulers now foresee an end to Assad’s rule, the former Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki Al Faisal, told reporters in Washington that it was “inevitable” that Assad would step down.

Despite the widespread condemnation, Assad was unlikely to put an end to the crackdown, said Fadia Kiwan, a political science professor at Beirut’s St. Joseph University. The reason is simple: Assad’s regime would almost certainly fall if the crackdown ends, she said.

Although activists say the anti-government protesters have remained largely peaceful, an armed insurgency has developed in recent months targeting Assad’s military and security forces.

Thirty-four soldiers were killed Monday in an ambush in Daraa, the birthplace of the uprising, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The brazen attack by army defectors suggests a new confidence among troops who have sided with the protesters and highlights the potential for an armed confrontation to escalate.

Amateur video provided by activists showed what appeared to be an army tank and other military vehicles engulfed in flames in Daraa. Other footage showed a fire at the end of an alley sending up a plume of smoke, followed by an explosion. “That’s the free army!” a man shouted as gunshots rang out. “That’s a sniper,” another voice said. “There’s a sniper at the school.”

Other videos showed tanks on urban streets firing their cannons and crowds of people running from automatic gunfire.

As many as 90 people were killed nationwide Monday, including 19 civilians whose bodies were collected from the streets of Homs and delivered to the morgue. The U.N. estimates the regime’s military crackdown has killed 3,500 people in the past eight months.

In many ways, the violence against security forces plays directly into the regime’s hands by giving it a pretext to crack down with overwhelming force, analysts say.

Assad has responded with once-unthinkable promises of reform in one of the most authoritarian states in the Middle East. But he simultaneously unleashed the military to crush the protests with tanks, gunfire and snipers.

On Tuesday, the regime announced an amnesty for 1,180 prisoners who were arrested over the past eight months but whose “hands have not been stained by blood.” Earlier this month, Assad freed 533 prisoners to mark Eid al-Adha, the Muslim feast of sacrifice.

Still, the gestures ring hollow alongside the mounting death toll and amateur videos posted online every day that appear to show random gunfire and shelling.

The bloodshed also has laid bare Syria’s long-simmering sectarian tensions, with disturbing reports of Iraq-style sectarian killings.

Syria is an overwhelmingly Sunni country of 22 million, but Assad and the ruling elite belong to the minority Alawite sect. Assad, and his father before him, stacked key military posts with Alawites to meld the fates of the army and the regime — a tactic aimed at compelling the army to fight to the death to protect the Assad family dynasty.

To a large degree, the military has remained loyal. Most of the defectors appear to be lower-level Sunni conscripts, not officers. But observers say the tide could change if the military continues to be called upon to shoot unarmed protesters.

Damascus fears the United States and its allies might use the rare Arab consensus to press for tougher sanctions at the United Nations.

Veto-wielding Russia and China have so far opposed efforts at the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions on Syria — a stance that could become harder to maintain.