Syrian security forces killed 63 people Tuesday in assaults on northern villages and a barrage of heavy shelling in the flashpoint city of Homs, as the Red Cross called for daily cease-fires to allow in urgently needed aid.
Activists said at least 30 people died and more than 200 were wounded as government troops bombarded the rebel-held Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr, where at least two children were killed. They said security forces launched the assault after opposition fighters in the Sunni Muslim district blocked troops from entering.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 33 more civilians were killed when government forces trying to crush opposition to President Bashar al-Assad stormed villages in northern Idlib province. The group said the assault targeted the settlement of Abdita and extended to neighboring areas.
The casualty figures could not be independently verified because phone lines have been cut and Syria restricts the operations of foreign media.
The International Committee of the Red Cross [ICRC] called on Syrian authorities and rebels Tuesday to immediately implement a daily two-hour cease-fire so it can deliver emergency aid and evacuate the sick and wounded. ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger said that in Homs and elsewhere, entire families have been isolated for days, unable to secure food, water or medical care.
State-run Syrian TV reports there is no shortage of food, fuel, and medicine in Homs.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the U.S. supports calls for a humanitarian cease-fire. Human rights activists say the violence has killed at least 6,000 people during the 11-month uprising.
Watch related video of violence in Homs
Intense shelling rocked the rebel stronghold of Baba Amr in Homs as living conditions for thousands of residents continued to deteriorate. Opposition videos posted on the Internet showed buildings and vehicles burning and columns of government tanks heading towards Homs.
In the capital Damascus, anti-government protests overnight spread to the central district of Baramka, and security forces fired at demonstrators in Kafr Sousa, wounding several. Al Arabiya TV also showed video of a reported general strike in the affluent Barzeh district.
Opposition videos also showed what appeared to be a large crowd of students demonstrating against the government in Syria's commercial capital of Aleppo. A video reportedly from Hassaka showed protesters toppling a statue of Assad's late brother Bassel.
VOA cannot confirm the authenticity of any of the videos.
Homs is a major hub of the protests against Assad's autocratic rule. Syria's military is under the control of Shi'ite Alawite officers, from the same minority sect as Assad, raising concerns the country is headed toward open civil war.
The escalation comes as Russia, a key ally of Assad, said it will not attend an international conference on Syria later this week because the Syrian government would not be represented. Russia's foreign ministry said the United Nations Security Council should send a special humanitarian envoy to Syria.
Friday meeting planned
The "Friends of Syria" contact group - comprising Western and Arab nations openly seeking Assad's downfall - are planning to use Friday's meeting in Tunisia to increase pressure on the Syrian government to halt the bloodshed.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday that the best outcome for Syria would be a political solution, but that if Assad refuses to yield to diplomatic pressure, "we may have to consider additional measures."
Earlier this month, Russia and China vetoed a Western- and Arab-backed effort to pass a Security Council resolution endorsing an Arab League plan for Assad to cede power. But Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby said Monday he believes Moscow and Beijing may be shifting their positions on the Syrian crisis.
Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami of the Hoover Institution said protesters in Damascus and Aleppo have been joining the opposition in growing numbers.
"I think both Damascus and Aleppo feel morally embarrassed that Homs and Hama and Daraa and Jisr Shughour have suffered, and that they have been somewhat quiescent," he said. "Sooner or later, it came to all the outskirts of Damascus. Now, the rebellion has come very close to the great presidential palace of Bashar al-Assad and the old neighborhoods of Damascus, i.e., the Mazzeh district, the Midan Square, etcetera."
Ajami said that until recently, Damascus has been less of a flashpoint because the government had “bought off the merchant class,” with privileges. He predicts that “if Damascus were to be set ablaze, the regime would fall.”
Ajami added that Syrian authorities have been reluctant to use too much force in Aleppo, a northern city, for fear of inciting neighboring Turkey.
“My understanding is that the climate in Turkey itself, politically, would not permit any... in other words, if there were massacres in Aleppo, akin to what's happening in Homs, I think the Turks would unleash their power on Bashar, and I think Bashar, of course, knows that," he said.
Ajami said the Syrian government's backing by Iran and Russia remains steadfast.
"What we can say with confidence is that the friends of the Syrian regime, i.e. Hezbollah, Iran, the Russians, have come to the help of the Syrian regime, but the friends of the Syrian people, particularly the United States, have so far not come to the help of the Syrian people," he said.