The United States has closed its embassy in Syria as the government there escalates its violent crackdown on an opposition uprising.
The U.S. State Department said Monday that embassy functions have been suspended and that Ambassador Robert Ford and other staff have left the country. The Obama adminstration had warned last month it would close its mission in Damascus unless Syria's government addressed security considerations, including the safety of its personnel.
Violence continued to flare Monday as Syrian government forces bombarded the country's third largest city of Homs, large parts of which are in rebel hands.
Residents say shells slammed into apartment blocks, causing numerous casualties, as Syrian government forces pounded areas of Homs with heavy artillery. Opposition sources indicated that tanks had blocked all entrances to the city.
Videos on opposition websites showed bodies in the street amid pools of blood. Other videos showed men trying to evacuate people from a field hospital which had been hit. It was impossible to independently verify the videos.
Al Arabiya TV showed live webcam images of shells slamming into the Bab Amr district of Homs as smoke rose from buildings which had caught fire. The most intense shelling was reported in the districts of Bab Amr, Khalidiya, Bab Sibai and Insha'at.
Opposition activist Omar Idliby told al Hurra TV that government forces began to prepare for the bombardment hours in advance.
Government forces withdrew from many positions inside Homs overnight in preparation for the bombing campaign, he said, which is being conducted from a distance. Idliby said rebel soldiers defending parts of Homs have only light arms. And he claimed the government used attack helicopters, as well as artillery and Grad rockets, adding that civilians have been trying to flee, but that it's been difficult.
Other witnesses say medical supplies are running short in Homs and that government forces are firing on anything that moves, preventing the work of ambulances and rescue workers.
Elsewhere, opposition sources report government attacks on suburbs of Damascus, including Daraya and the mountain resort of Zabadani. In northern Idlib province, rebel soldiers attacked government troops, reportedly killing three officers and capturing 19 soldiers.
Peter Harling, of the International Crisis Group, says the Syrian government has lost control of much of its territory and is conducting scattered attacks, but is unable to hold what it's retaken.
"The regime has lost control of its territory, by and large," said Harling, "It's lost control of some of its units, that have been behaving like militias going on the rampage. Even where the army and the security services are showing a great degree of cohesiveness, what we see is something like occupation forces, completely cut from society. So, they can move in with massive firepower, doing a tremendous amount of damage, but they can't really stay. If they do try to stay, very quickly they're sniped, they're ambushed and they're forced to leave."
Meanwhile, Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby has warned the Syrian government to end to its military escalation, saying it is pushing the country towards civil war.