BEIRUT: Syrian army forces killed at least 35 people in intense shelling of central Homs Sunday, activists said, as opposition forces appeared to escalate operations in other rebel hubs and around the capital Damascus.
The renewed assault on Homs and other rebel areas came as the newly elected head of the exiled opposition Syrian National Council called for decisive action from the international community to “stop the killing machine in a decisive decision under [United Nations] Chapter 7.”
Kurdish activist Abdelbasset Sayda, who was named head of the SNC in Istanbul Sunday, also called on all members of the Damascus regime to defect.
“We call upon all officials in the regime and in the institutions to defect from the regime,” Sayda told reporters in Istanbul.
Activists said the Syrian army used artillery, mortars and rockets in Homs, in one of the biggest bombardments since a failed U.N.-mandated cease-fire in April.
Syrian forces also hit opposition strongholds in the towns of Quseir, Talbiseh and Rastan in central Syria in a renewed push to regain rebel-held areas.
Human rights and other opposition campaigners have reported that rebel forces have been intensifying attacks in the area in recent days.
In Talbiseh Sunday, rebel forces attacked and captured a military base, with the colonel and several officers defecting to the opposition, Free Syrian Army representatives and activists told The Daily Star.
Activist Majad, who declined to give his real name, said officers in the Homs military council and the commanders of the 743 Battalion defected at dawn to take the base, which activists say is strategically located on the route to the Homs oil refinery and equipped with SAM 6 and SAM 7 missiles.
“It was decided that today at dawn the battalion will completely defect. The commander of the battalion gathered all the soldiers and spoke to them honestly on the situation ... after which he pardoned them to go home or choose to join the Free Syrian Army,” he said via Skype.
He said all 130 soldiers, including 10 officers, were present when the defection was announced, adding that eight soldiers and two officers joined the FSA.
Rebels were able to appropriate some of the weapons, they said, before Syrian army helicopters shelled the area to destroy the battalion’s weapons cache.
“Armed people attacked the base. Some of the [battalion] defected and some of them ran away,” said Rami Abdulrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based activist group.
“After that the army took everything back.”
Activist Abu Qassem said at least 500 rockets and shells had fallen on Rastan, 25 kilometers north of Homs, since Saturday, and army helicopters were firing machine guns into the area.
“The Free Syrian Army is far outgunned, but it is responding by mounting guerrilla attacks while trying to avoid direct exchange of fire,” he said.
Assad’s forces also carried out raids on neighborhoods in and around Damascus to try and flush out rebels who have been stepping up operations near security compounds in the capital.
Syrian forces bombarded the northern Damascus district of Qaboun and later entered it in armored vehicles, storming houses, following attacks Friday on buses carrying troops and pro-Assad militia, opposition sources said.
“Qaboun came under bombardment for the first time since the uprising. Security forces in the nearby Airforce Intelligence compound fired on the neighborhood with anti-aircraft guns and large calibre mortar bombs,” said Abu Fida, an activist in Qaboun.
U.N. efforts to bring peace to Syria have largely come to nothing, with both sides blaming the other for breaking the cease-fire.
The absence of a clear and unified opposition, and concerns about an intensifying civil war which would suck in neighboring countries has also complicated the picture.
The SNC has been plagued by internal divisions, and with little influence over protesters and activists inside Syria, has not won clear international endorsement.
Kurdish activist Sayda was the only candidate for the three-month presidency of the group.
Sayda sought to reassure Syria’s minority Christian and Alawite communities, saying there will be no discrimination based on religion, faith or ethnicity in future Syria.