West Warns Syria Against Storming Rebel Stronghold

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition website, said 12 people were killed across the country yesterday.

BEIRUT - France yesterday called on world powers to "save the Syrian people" as it joined the United States and Britain in raising an alarm that President Bashar Assad's forces may be about to storm the rebel stronghold of Homs.

In Damascus, the government denied any crackdown, while accusing its opponents of taking up arms and warning the rebels' supporters in the West that Syria could count on Russia, China and others to oppose any foreign intervention in its affairs.

Syria death - AP - December 2011

In Homs, a pro-democracy activist said there was no clear sign of a troop build-up. Opposition groups have called for businesses and labor not to work today, in what they have called a "Strike for Dignity."

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition website, said 12 people were killed across the country yesterday.

"France is extremely concerned about information of a massive military operation being prepared by Syrian security authorities against the city of Homs," French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said, echoing concerns raised in Washington, London and neighboring Turkey.

"France warns the Syrian government, and will hold the Syrian authorities responsible for any action against the population. The entire international community must mobilize itself to save the Syrian people," Valero said.

On Friday, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman said: "It is extremely concerning that in places like Homs we have huge number of reports that they are preparing something large-scale.

"They are not going to be able to hide who's responsible if there is a major assault on the weekend."

Syria rejected the rumors. "There is no policy of crackdown," Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdesi said. "The Syrian forces are there to protect civilians and maintain law and order that is breached by those who are carrying arms against the State. The story of peacefulness of the protest is no longer a valid story in some places," he said.

Separately, the official Syrian news agency SANA said the so-called BRICS group of developing economic powers - Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa - "reiterated its absolute rejection to any interference in Syrian affairs."

It cited a message from Russia's UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, to the United Nations Security Council, which has been the forum for sharp divisions over Syria between the Western powers on the one hand and Russia and China on the other.

The Arab League has been pressing Syria, under threat of sanctions, to remove troops from its towns and let in observers. Egypt's MENA news agency said yesterday Arab foreign ministers will meet in Cairo at the end of the week to discuss a response to what it called a conditional Syrian acceptance of monitors.

Turkey warned Syria Friday it would act to protect itself if the crushing of protest threatened regional security and unleashed a tide of refugees on its borders.

Speaking about the situation in Homs, the opposition Syrian National Council said: "News reports, videos and information from activists indicate that the regime is preparing to commit a massacre in the city to extinguish the flame of the revolution, and 'discipline' the rest of Syria's cities."

However, some activists questioned whether the SNC statement was intended principally to galvanize international action.

One campaigner in Homs, a city of 1.5 million, saw little sign of an imminent offensive: "I have been hearing this since yesterday. I did a tour around the city and I did not see anything unusual. It's the same checkpoints and the same number of soldiers."

Peaceful demonstrations calling for reform began in Syria in March, inspired by the Arab Spring, but were met almost from the outset by lethal force. Activists say about 4,600 Syrians have been killed, about a quarter of them by security forces.

In Oslo yesterday, where this year's Nobel Peace Prize was presented to, among others, a Yemeni campaigner who helped remove Yemen's veteran autocrat, the head of the prize selection panel said Assad would inevitably have to yield before the "wind of history."