Syrian tanks and troops have massed 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 ceasefire to allow emergency aid in.
Activists said the intense shelling of Baba Amr in Homs lasted a few hours but did not seem to be the start of a widely expected military offensive aimed at retaking rebel-held neighbourhoods in the central region. At least two of the 16 people killed were children, activists said, warning that Homs is already facing a humanitarian catastrophe.
"The current situation requires an immediate decision to implement a humanitarian pause in the fighting," said Jakob Kellenberger, the president of the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross. "In Homs and in other affected areas, entire families have been stuck for days in their homes, unable to step outside to get bread, other food or water, or to obtain medical care," he said in a statement.
The Red Cross said it has been negotiating with Syrian authorities and members of the opposition to agree a temporary ceasefire so that emergency aid can reach beleaguered parts of the country. "It should last at least two hours every day, so that ICRC staff and Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers have enough time to deliver aid and evacuate the wounded and the sick," said Mr Kellenberger.
Russia said the United Nations should send a special envoy to Syria to help co-ordinate security issues and the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Russia's Foreign Ministry said on Twitter that it's proposing that the UN Security Council ask the UN Secretary General to send the envoy.
The UN estimates that at least 5,400 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in the 11-month uprising against Syria's President Bashar Assad. But that figure was given in January and hundreds more have been reported killed since.
An activist inside Homs said the shelling started after repeated attempts by troops to storm the edges of Baba Amr. "Government troops have been unable to advance because of stiff resistance from defectors inside," he told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, fearing government reprisals.
The military sent columns of tanks and other reinforcements toward Homs on Monday, activists said. A flood of military reinforcements has been a prelude to previous offensives by the authoritarian regime, which has tried to use its overwhelming firepower to crush an opposition that has been bolstered by defecting soldiers and hardened by months of street battles.
Activists reported heavy shelling of the Baba Amr, Khaldiyeh and Karm el-Zeytoun districts in Homs. It lasted for more than two hours early in the morning, followed by intermittent attacks concentrated on Baba Amr.
A main opposition group, the Local Co-ordination Committees, said 30 people were killed in Homs and 20 others elsewhere in the country, including 17 in Idlib. The figures could not immediately be confirmed by others.