Syrian soldiers walk at an army checkpoint in Hula, near Homs. (Reuters )
Reporting from Beirut — Syrian opposition activists on Monday declared a "humanitarian disaster area" in the embattled city of Homs and called on the United Nations and Arab League to intervene and protect threatened civilians.
The opposition decried a 5-day-old siege of Syria's third-largest city, which has become a hub of the rebellion and a reported site of sectarian massacres.
"Indiscriminate slaughter is being committed by the regime's militias," said the Syrian National Council, an opposition umbrella group that demands the ouster of President Bashar Assad.
Security forces have reportedly met stiff resistance from opposition gunmen — labeled terrorists by the government and freedom fighters by the opposition.
Government forces have shelled the neighborhood of Bab Amr, where 40 people have been killed and dozens of homes destroyed in recent days, according to the Local Coordination Committees, another opposition coalition. The death toll in Homs and environs in the last week or so exceeds 100, the opposition says.
One Homs activist said the Bab Amr district was the site Monday of large-scale security sweeps and arrests, with wounded at a neighborhood field clinic among those detained. Many detainees were held in a school, according to the activist, who said gunfire and shelling could be heard in the area late Sunday and early Monday.
The siege has prevented the entry of food, medical supplies and other essentials, the opposition said, and residents have been trapped in their homes and, in some cases, unable to bury their dead. The opposition is seeking international assistance in providing aid, protecting civilians and evacuating residents to a safe location.
"This is an extreme humanitarian crisis," said Ausama Monajed, a member of the Syrian National Council, which was officially formed last month in Istanbul, Turkey.
There was no immediate response from the Syrian government. Damascus blames the violence on armed Islamic militants funded from abroad.
The government has restricted access to journalists, making it difficult to verify what is happening in Homs and elsewhere in Syria, where the rebellion is entering its eighth month.
In Homs, as in other opposition strongholds — including the nearby cities of Hama and Rastan, which were the sites of earlier crackdowns — Assad's forces seem determined to ensure that government control is maintained.
Allowing a city or region to declare "liberation" — as the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi did in the early days of the rebellion against Moammar Kadafi — could weaken Damascus' position and hasten Assad's downfall, analysts say.
Bab Amr and other opposition strongholds have long been cut off by regime checkpoints and subject to raids and sniper attacks, according to opposition activists and residents. Before the crackdown, one activist said, Bab Amr was one of the few neighborhoods where wanted men and defectors could find a degree of shelter. But the current offensive seems designed to crush resistance.
The onslaught in Homs has intensified, the opposition says, despite the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which began Sunday, and last week's Arab League-brokered peace pact. The Arab League plan called on Assad to pull armed forces from populated areas, among other provisions.
The new plea Monday for international intervention seems designed to increase pressure on Assad to comply with the pact.
The opposition is asking that Arab League and United Nations monitors be sent to Homs, but U.N. action seems unlikely.
Last month, Syrian allies Russia and China vetoed a proposed U.N. Security Council resolution that would have condemned Assad's handling of the crisis and possibly opened a legal path for international intervention.
Homs and the surrounding areas are home to about 2 million people, mostly Sunni Muslims, who also represent the majority in Syria. Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, dominates the leadership of Syria's security apparatus.
Last week, there were reports of Alawite men being taken off a bus in the Homs area and executed, followed by allegations that 11 Sunni men had been killed in a factory.
The resistance in Homs is centered in Sunni-majority districts, such as Bab Amr. The government still maintains considerable support among Alawites and other minorities in the Homs region, observers said.
The uprising that began in March with peaceful protests in various Syrian cities now also has an armed wing, including military defectors who have switched sides. How many people have taken up arms against the government is unclear. The opposition has not called for an armed rebellion, but it has lauded army defectors as heroes.
The Syrian National Council has urged Syrian troops, mostly Sunni conscripts, to disobey orders and "protect the homeland and citizens."
Paul is a special correspondent.