Hundreds of civilians killed in Syria as arm uses missiles

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EU plans evacuation of nationals in Syria, broader sanctions

Syrian President Bashar Assad wants his vice president to hold talks with the opposition groups, Russia's foreign minister said, as activists reported that dozens died Wednesday in government bombings of cities and villages across Syria.

A day after holding talks with Assad in an emergency meeting in Damascus, Sergey Lavrov told reporters in Moscow that the Syrian leader has "delegated the responsibility of holding such a dialogue to Vice President (Farouk) al-Sharaa."

Lavrov blamed both Assad's regime and opposition forces for instigating the violence that has killed thousands of people since March. "On both sides there are people that aim at an armed confrontation, not a dialogue," he said.

His comments came as Syrian troops bombed residential neighborhoods in the central city of Homs, the northern province of Idlib, southern region of Daraa and the mountain town of Zabadani, in what activists say is the regime's final push to retake areas controlled by the rebels.

Activists said at least 50 people died in Wednesday's shelling of Homs, which has been under a relentless regime offensive for the past five days. Hundreds are believed to have been killed there since Saturday.

Syria's state-run TV reported that gunmen fired mortar rounds at the oil refinery in Homs, one of two in Syria, setting two fuel tankers on fire.

Assad's regime is becoming increasingly isolated over its bloody crackdown on dissent. Five European countries and six Arab Gulf nations have pulled their ambassadors out of Damascus, and the U.S. has closed its embassy in Syria.

Germany, whose envoy left Syria this month, also said he would not be replaced.

Though increasingly ostracized internationally, the Syrian president was bolstered by Tuesday's visit from Lavrov and Russia's intelligence chief, Mikhail Fradkov.

During the talks, the Russians pushed for a solution to the Syrian crisis that would include reforms by the regime and a dialogue with the opposition — but not for Assad to step down.

Assad said Syria was determined to hold a national dialogue with the opposition and independent figures, and that his government was "ready to cooperate with any effort that boosts stability in Syria," according to state news agency SANA.

The Syrian opposition rejects any talks with the regime and says they accept nothing less than Assad's departure.

On Saturday, Russia and China blocked a Western- and Arab-backed U.N. Security Council resolution supporting calls for Assad to hand over some powers to his vice president as a way to defuse the 11-month-old crisis.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 50 people were killed in Wednesday's shelling of the Homs neighborhoods of Bayadah, Baba Amr, Khaldiyeh and Karm el-Zeytoun.

The group also said that 23 homes were heavily damaged in Baba Amr alone.

Omar Shaker, an activist in Baba Amr, said his neighborhood was under "very intense shelling" by tanks, mortars, artilleries and heavy machine guns. Shaker added that he counted five bodies Wednesday in his district.

"The situation is dire. We are short of food, water and medical aid. Doctors have collapsed after treating the wounded without rest for five days," Shaker said. "We want Lavrov to come and spend a night in Homs to see what we have been passing through."

The activist urged the international community to set up a safe passage so that women and children can leave volatile areas of Homs. The head of the Observatory, Rami Abdul-Rahman, said the regime was trying "exhaust rebels in preparation for storming neighborhoods."

The Observatory and another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, also reported intense clashes between troops loyal to Assad and defectors on Wednesday in the province of Idlib, bordering Turkey. The Observatory said at least five soldiers were killed in the clashes.

The LCC said troops backed by tanks were also shelling and pushing forward in the southern village of Tseel in the Daraa province that borders Jordan.

The group also said that rebel-controlled Zabadani, west of Damascus, was subjected to intense shelling since the early hours of Wednesday.

The U.N. estimates the government crackdown has killed more than 5,400 people since March, making Syria's conflict one of the deadliest of the Arab Spring.

Hundreds more are believed to have died since the U.N. released that figure in January, but the chaos in the country has made it impossible for the world body to update its figures.

In a barrage of mortar shells, Syrian forces killed 200 people and wounded hundreds in Homs in an offensive that appears to be the bloodiest episode in the nearly 11-month-old uprising, activists said Saturday.

The assault in Homs, which has been one of the main flashpoints of opposition during the uprising, comes as the U.N. Security Council prepares to vote on a draft resolution backing an Arab call for President Bashar Assad to give up power.

Two main opposition groups, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees, said the death toll in Homs was more than 200 people in shelling that began late Friday. More than half of the killings - about 140 - were reported in the Khaldiyeh neighborhood.

"This is the worst attack of the uprising, since the uprising began in March until now," said Rami Abdul-Rahman, the head of the Observatory, which tracks violence through contacts on the ground.

The reports could not be independently confirmed.

It was not immediately clear what precipitated the attack, but there have been reports that army defectors set up checkpoints in the area and were trying to consolidate control.

Earlier on Friday, deadly clashes erupted between government troops and rebels in suburbs of the Syrian capital and villages in the south, sparking fighting that killed at least 23 people, including nine soldiers, activists said.

Assad is trying to crush the revolt with a sweeping crackdown that has so far claimed thousands of lives, but neither the government nor the protesters are backing down and clashes between the military and an increasingly bold and armed opposition has meant many parts of the country have seen relentless violence.

The U.N. Security Council will meet Saturday morning to take up a much-negotiated resolution on Syria, said a diplomat for a Western nation that sits on the council.

The diplomat spoke Friday on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be quoted by the media.

The move toward a vote came after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke by telephone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in an effort to overcome Russian opposition to any statement that explicitly calls for regime change or a military intervention in Syria.

The U.S. and its partners have ruled out military action but want the global body to endorse an Arab League plan that calls on Assad to hand power over to Syria's vice president.

Russia's deputy foreign minister, Gennady Gatilov, said Friday that Moscow could not support the resolution in its current form. But he expressed optimism that an agreement could be reached, according to state news agency RIA Novosti.

Assad's regime has been intensifying an assault against army defectors and protesters. The U.N. said weeks ago that more than 5,400 people have been killed in violence since March. Hundreds more have been killed since that tally was announced.

In the restive northern city a group of Free Syrian Army rebels prepare to fight against President Assad's Syrian Army after hearing they are arriving.

Gathered in a small room under the cover of night many of the rebels claim to have defected from the very same regime forces.

One of them calling himself Samir, held up his identity card and said he defected to join the Free Syrian Army. "I've come today from Damascus," he said.

The rebels showed their guns and also claimed to have a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) explaining that was all they had to defend themselves.

When news reached them that the Syrian Army was approaching the location, they hastily left the building chanting "God is Great!"

Meanwhile, residents took to the streets to voice their discontent and call for President Assad to step down.

As they shouted slogans calling for Assad to be prosecuted, a group of fighters brandished their guns and held a banner demanding a 'No Fly Zone'.

The banner also branded President Assad a "killer of children."

The European Union is making contingency plans in case it needs to evacuate EU citizens from Syria and is mulling a ban on flights into and out of the country, senior officials said on Wednesday.

The suspension of commercial flights is among a raft of new sanctions being debated by the EU in the face of an unrelenting crackdown on opponents in Syria after Russia and China vetoed a UN resolution to end the violence.

"We're trying to make things change," a senior EU official said on condition of anonymity, voicing concern that the violence could last a long time. "We're facing a wall, and we have to find a way of climbing over that wall and moving ahead."

The 27-state bloc is also discussing whether to ban the import of phosphates from Syria, freeze the assets of the Syrian central bank and suspend trade in gold and other gems in order to dry up the regime's funds, diplomats said.

The new sanctions against President Bashar al-Assad's regime could be adopted at the next meeting of EU foreign ministers on February 27.

"We will get in the end new sanctions against Syria. I have no doubt about that. What will be the exact shape of sanctions is what remains to be seen," the official said.

Germany proposed a flight ban but some countries have voiced reservations, noting that keeping planes aloft may be needed in case of a humanitarian emergency, officials said.

The EU is making contingency plans for the "worst case scenario," reinforcing delegations in Amman and Beirut to deal with any influx of EU and other citizens fleeing Syria, said another senior official.

Thousands of Europeans are believed to be in Syria but governments are trying to determine the exact number.

The EU and members states will have a "coordinated discussion on the security in the country, on security for citizens and on contingency planning," the official said.