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ISIS militants have reportedly captured the Syrian town of Maheen, in central Homs Province, from government forces.

The fighters launched the offensive with two suicide car blasts on October 31, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says.

Clashes were also taking place in nearby Sadad, a mostly-Christian town.


The latest development comes amid air campaigns in Syria by Russia and a US-led coalition.

ISIS has been expanding from its mainly northern and eastern strongholds towards Homs in central Syria in recent months. The group overran the town of Tadmur – home to the ancient ruins of Palmyra – and al-Qaryatain town.

The latest offensive on Maheen and Sadad brings ISIS to within 13 miles of the main road that links the Syrian capital Damascus to Homs and other cities further north.ISIS captures Maheen in Syria

The Observatory said at least 50 government soldiers were killed or wounded in the fighting. The attack on Maheen began late on October 31 with twin suicide car bombs, a favored tactic for ISIS militants launching an assault.

By November 1 the Observatory reported that the whole town was reported to be in ISIS hands. An ISIS statement also said the group had taken Maheen.

Maheen is home to a large military complex and arms depot.

Meanwhile, clashes between government troops and ISIS are said to be continuing on the outskirts of Sadad. The town is home to Syria’s Assyrian Christian minority, where the ancient language of Aramaic is still spoken.

It comes amid continued Russian air strikes in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which Russian officials say are targeting ISIS and other “terrorist groups”.

However, activists on the ground say the strikes have been hitting moderate rebels and civilians in western areas, where ISIS have little or no presence.

They said more than 60 people were killed by Syrian army raids and Russian strikes in the northern province of Aleppo on October 31.

On October 30, more than 70 people were reported killed and hundreds more wounded in an air strike and shelling on a market in the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma.

In an attempt to ward off the attacks, rebel groups in Douma are reportedly using captured soldiers and other people associated with the government as human shields.

The US-led coalition, which is also hitting ISIS targets in Syria, said on November 1 it had conducted nine air strikes across the country, including in Mar’a and al-Hawl, in the north.

This week the White House announced that fewer than 50 US special forces troops would be sent to Syria to assist anti-government rebels in fighting ISIS.

Separately on November 1, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem met UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura in Damascus to discuss ongoing international talks on the Syria conflict.

Russia has conducted the first airstrikes in Syria against opponents of President Bashar al-Assad.

The strikes reportedly hit rebel-controlled areas of Homs and Hama provinces, causing casualties.

The US says it was informed an hour before they took place.

Russian defense officials say aircraft targeted the Islamic State (ISIS) group, but an unnamed US official told Reuters that so far they did not appear to be targeting ISIS-held territory.

Syria’s civil war has raged for four years, with an array of armed groups fighting to overthrow the government.

The US and its allies have insisted that President Bashar al-Assad should leave office, while Russia has backed its ally remaining in power.

Photo CNN

Photo CNN

The upper house of the Russian parliament granted President Vladimir Putin permission to deploy the Russian air force in Syria.

The Russian defense ministry said the country’s air force had targeted ISIS military equipment, communication facilities, arms depots, ammunition and fuel supplies.

A Syrian opposition activist network, the Local Co-ordination Committees, said Russian warplanes hit five towns – Zafaraneh, Rastan, Talbiseh, Makarmia and Ghanto – resulting in the deaths of 36 people, including five children.

None of the areas targeted were controlled by ISIS, activists said.

In a TV address, President Vladimir Putin said the air strikes were targeting Islamist militants – including Russian citizens – who have taken over large parts of Syria and Iraq.

“If they [militants] succeed in Syria, they will return to their home country, and they will come to Russia, too,” he said.

Vladimir Putin added that Russia was not going to send ground troops to Syria, and that its role in Syrian army operations would be limited.

“We certainly are not going to plunge head-on into this conflict… we will be supporting the Syrian army purely in its legitimate fight with terrorist groups.”

Vladimir Putin also said he expected President Bashar al-Assad to talk with the Syrian opposition about a political settlement, but clarified that he was referring to what he described as “healthy” opposition groups.

A US defense official said: “A Russian official in Baghdad this morning informed US embassy personnel that Russian military aircraft would begin flying anti-ISIL [ISIS] missions today over Syria. He further requested that US aircraft avoid Syrian airspace during these missions.”

State department spokesman John Kirby told reporters: “The US-led coalition will continue to fly missions over Iraq and Syria as planned and in support of our international mission to degrade and destroy ISIL [ISIS].”

Syrian rebels are being evacuated from their last stronghold in Homs, activists say.

Within the past hour, buses have begun leaving the Old City under a deal brokered by the United Nations.

At least two buses have arrived in rebel-held territory to the north, carrying a number of armed fighters.

Syrian rebels are being evacuated from their last stronghold in Homs

Syrian rebels are being evacuated from their last stronghold in Homs

It marks the end of any rebel presence in the heart of the major city once dubbed the “capital of the revolution” against President Bashar al-Assad.

The rebel fighters and their families are sad and bitter as they say goodbye to a place they swore they would never leave.

They buckled finally after two years of siege – the government’s forces following a tactic of what some Syrian army officers called “surrender or starve”.

The siege of the Old City was tightened in recent months with intense shelling and air strikes.

The deal was brokered by the UN – which is also supervising the buses now heading into the Old City – and was agreed only after many months of negotiation.

The deal reportedly also involves easing a siege of two predominantly Shia Muslim towns in the north loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

The armed groups within the Old City were deeply divided about whether to accept a ceasefire.

The al-Nusra Front, which is affiliated to al Qaeda, wanted to try to break the siege with a series of suicide bombings. It attempted to do this, but failed, and al-Nusra fighters will be on the evacuation buses too.

One more district of Homs is still holding out, al-Wair on the periphery.

Fighters there have accepted a ceasefire and will leave, too, as soon as arrangements are made.

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The UN has restarted its aid mission in the besieged rebel-held Old City of Homs, Syria, after hours of talks aimed at saving a truce between warring parties.

UN vehicles towed trailers of food into the city, and aid agencies prepared buses to transport fleeing civilians.

The current ceasefire deal is due to end late on Wednesday, but the regime has said it will allow an extension.

Hundreds were evacuated from the Old City after a truce was agreed last Friday, but more than 1,000 remain.

The UN has restarted its aid mission in the besieged rebel-held Old City of Homs

The UN has restarted its aid mission in the besieged rebel-held Old City of Homs

Red Crescent vehicles were attacked on their way to the Old City at the weekend, and their workers were briefly trapped.

Government troops have besieged Homs for 18 months.

Evacuations over the weekend were facilitated by a three-day truce, which was then extended until Wednesday.

But the operation was suspended on Tuesday because of what UN and Syrian officials said were logistical reasons.

Homs governor Talal Barazi said the temporary truce could be extended further if necessary.

UN agencies have also expressed concern over the fate of dozens of men who were taken in by Syrian security personnel after they fled Homs.

UN rights spokesman Rupert Colville said it was “essential that they do not come to any harm”.

The detainees were being held at an abandoned school, the UN said.

The Syrian authorities said the screening was necessary to weed out “terrorists”.

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A UN aid convoy bringing supplies into the besieged district of the central Syrian city of Homs has come under fire, leaving at least one person hurt.

Renewed fighting in the city had already slowed bids to bring in relief supplies.

The Syrian Red Crescent said its vehicles were fired on, and that one of its drivers was wounded.

However, Syrian state media said four Red Crescent aid workers were wounded by rebel gunfire.

The UN is overseeing efforts to deliver food, water and medicine by truck to some 3,000 civilians in rebel-held areas.

The government and rebels accused each other of violating a ceasefire after mortar fire on Saturday morning delayed an earlier attempt to bring in aid.

A UN aid convoy bringing supplies into the besieged district of the central Syrian city of Homs has come under fire, leaving at least one person hurt

A UN aid convoy bringing supplies into the besieged district of the central Syrian city of Homs has come under fire, leaving at least one person hurt

On Friday, the first day of the agreed three-day ceasefire, more than 80 children, women and elderly people were evacuated.

Many of those evacuated on Friday looked frail and described extreme hardships inside the area, which has been under army siege for nearly a year-and-a-half.

They said bread had not been available for months, and many residents were gathering weeds and leaves to eat.

Relief officials had earlier warned that this second phase of the humanitarian operation, to allow aid into the embattled quarter, was particularly delicate, not least because the government side has always been reluctant to see supplies going in to rebel-held areas.

If the aid does reach the city, the next step would be another day of evacuations.

During Friday’s operation, vulnerable civilians such as children, old people and medical cases were brought out of the besieged area, sometimes carried by Red Crescent volunteers.

They told journalists that there were more people trapped in the city who had wanted to leave.

Homs has been a key battleground in the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

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Syria’s government and opposition have traded insults after a week-long peace conference in Geneva ended with no firm agreement.

Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said the opposition representatives were immature, while the opposition’s Louay Safi said the regime had no desire to stop the bloodshed.

However, UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said he had seen some “common ground”, and scheduled more talks for February 10.

The opposition has agreed to take part, but Walid Muallem refused to commit.

“We represent the concerns and interests of our people. If we find that [another meeting] is their demand, then we will come back,” he told reporters.

He railed at the opposition, saying they had tried to “implode the conference” by insisting that the government hands power over.

Louay Safi said the opposition would not sit in talks “endlessly”, and urged the government to “talk seriously about transferring power”.

Opposition leader Ahmed Jarba said he and his colleagues had “stood up to the regime, a regime that only knows blood and death”.

Lakhdar Brahimi is optimistic despite slow progress at Geneva talks on Syria

Lakhdar Brahimi is optimistic despite slow progress at Geneva talks on Syria

The two sides discussed humanitarian issues and possible ways to end the violence.

They made some agreements on local ceasefires to allow access for humanitarian workers.

UN aid chief Valerie Amos said the deals had allowed some aid to get through to a few thousand families.

But she said that, so far, an agreed ceasefire in the besieged city of Homs had not had any effect, and no aid has got through.

Parts of Homs have been under government siege for more than 18 months. More than 100,000 people have died in Syria since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011.

Lakhdar Brahimi said: “Progress is very slow indeed, but the sides have engaged in an acceptable manner. This is a very modest beginning, but it is a beginning on which we can build.”

Though the gap between the two sides was “wide”, they had become used to sitting in the same room, he said.

“There have been moments when one side has even acknowledged the concerns and difficulties of the other side,” he said.

The first round of talks between the government and the opposition National Coalition began last week.

Both sides agreed to use a 2012 document known as the Geneva Communiqué as a basis for discussions, and agreed to meet in the same room.

But neither side could agree on the focus, with the opposition insisting that political transition was the focus, and the government wanting to talk about terrorism.

Diplomats described the atmosphere between the two sides as extremely tense all the way through the conference.

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UN mediator at the Geneva peace talks Lakhdar Brahimi has announced that Syria will allow women and children to leave the besieged area of Homs “from now”.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said women and children were free to leave. He alleged armed groups were preventing them from leaving.

Lakhdar Brahimi said that the opposition had agreed to give the government lists of detainees held by armed groups.

He said it was “too early” to assess the prospects of a comprehensive deal.

Lakhdar Brahimi admitted the talks were proceeding slowly but said that on Monday he “expected the two parties to make some general statement about the way forward”.

The envoy said he hoped a humanitarian convoy from the UN and the Red Cross would be able to go to Homs on Monday.

Hundreds of people are reportedly trapped in besieged parts of the city, including some who are very ill.

Syria will allow women and children to leave the besieged area of Homs

Syria will allow women and children to leave the besieged area of Homs

Faisal Mekdad said he hoped arrangements could be made with local officials to allow the convoy access but that the aid must not fall into “the hands of terrorists”, the term Syrian officials for all armed opposition.

Lakhdar Brahimi said that the government would allow women and children to leave immediately but had asked for a list of adult male civilians who wanted to leave to ensure they were not fighters.

The envoy said the opposition had pledged to gather names of detainees from groups it had “authority over or contact with” but admitted that this did not include all anti-government groups fighting in Syria.

The opposition in turn has been asking for the release of thousands of prisoners in government detention.

Lakhdar Brahimi said the talks in Geneva had taken the form of a joint session with the government and opposition in the morning before he met the sides separately in the afternoon.

He added that he expected this pattern to be repeated on Monday.

Lakhdar Brahimi said he had been encouraged by the atmosphere at the talks on Sunday, saying they had been characterized by “respect and exchange”.

No direct words had been exchanged between the delegations but the two sides were talking to each other through him, Lakhdar Brahimi said.

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Syrian army has fully captured Khalidiya district that was a key rebel stronghold in the central city of Homs, state media report.

The Sana news agency said the military had “restored security and stability to the neighborhood of Khalidiya”.

Activists reported clashes in Khalidiya on Monday morning, but said that most of the area was under army control.

The announcement comes a month after troops launched an offensive to oust rebels from Syria’s third largest city.

Homs has been one of the focuses of a two-year nationwide uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, in which the UN says more than 100,000 people have died.

Correspondents say the capture of Khalidiya would add further impetus to the counter-offensive by government troops and their allies, which saw the nearby town of Qusair fall in June.

On Monday, an unnamed army officer told Syrian state television: “Today, we can report having complete control of the area of Khalidiya.”

Syrian army has fully captured Khalidiya district that was a key rebel stronghold in the central city of Homs,

Syrian army has fully captured Khalidiya district that was a key rebel stronghold in the central city of Homs,

“That was a victory of all our fighters and the whole Syrian Army and especially our dear leader, Bashar al-Assad. And God willing, we will get rid of the terrorists in the entire country and the future will be free of killings and under the control of the army.”

However, UK-based activist group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights cast doubt on the claim.

While the group acknowledged that government forces were in control of most of Khalidiya, it said fighting was continuing on Monday.

“Clashes took place between rebels and regime forces, supported by Hezbollah and National Defence Forces, in the southern parts of the Khalidiya neighborhood,” it said.

“Regime forces are bombarding parts, and military reinforcements are arriving as advancing regime forces try to establish full control.”

Opposition activists told the AFP news agency that about 90% of Khalidiya was now controlled by the army. One told the Associated Press that the battle for the district was “almost over”.

On Sunday, the Arabic TV station al-Mayadeen, which is seen as close to the Syrian government, broadcast what it said was footage of Khalidiya, showing heavily damaged buildings and piles of rubble.

It also showed pictures of the interior of the historic Khaled bin Walid mosque, a focal point for anti-government protesters. Troops reportedly seized it on Saturday, days after activists accused them of firing shells at the tomb of Khaled bin Walid, a revered figure in Islam.

Only the Old City of Homs and a few other districts are still held by the opposition. On Monday, government jets bombed the Bab Hud district of the Old City, just south of Khalidiya, according to the Syrian Observatory.

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According to reports from activists and residents, the Syrian capital Damascus has seen some of the heaviest fighting of the conflict so far.

Mortar and small-arms fire was reported in several areas as government forces clashed with the Free Syrian Army.

The fighting came as UN and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan prepared to meet Russia’s foreign minister for talks on the Syrian crisis.

Russia has been backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Kofi Annan is expected to urge Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to put pressure on the Syrian authorities to begin a political transition..

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has said the conflict in Syria is now in effect a civil war.

It means combatants across Syria are now subject to the Geneva Conventions and could be liable for war crimes prosecution in the future.

The ICRC had previously regarded only the areas around Idlib, Homs and Hama as warzones.

Syrian capital Damascus has seen some of the heaviest fighting of the conflict so far

Syrian capital Damascus has seen some of the heaviest fighting of the conflict so far

Clashes between government forces and Free Syrian Army rebels seem to be creeping ever closer to the heart of Damascus and the centre of the regime’s power.

Mortars were reportedly used on the southern edge of the city, in areas like Tadhamon and Midan and around nearby Palestinian refugee camps.

Activists said clashes continued into the early hours of the morning.

A convoy of army reinforcements was reported to have been attacked by rebels in Kfar Sousa to the west, leading to further clashes there.

Residents were said to be fleeing some areas, while in other parts of the city protesters blocked motorways with burning tyres.

There has been frequent trouble in these areas – barely three miles (4-5 km) from the centre – for months.

But as with many of the suburbs ringing the city slightly further out, all the government’s repeated efforts to stifle defiance have failed.

The government has denied that it had used heavy weapons in its attack on the village of Tremseh on Thursday.

Activists initially described fighting in Tremseh, which is near the city of Hama, as a massacre of dozens of civilians, but later accounts suggested most of the dead were armed rebels.

UN observers at the scene have said Syrian forces used heavy artillery, tanks and helicopters, but Damascus denies those allegations and said just two civilians had been killed.

The accusations, if proved, would mean Damascus had broken an agreement it made with UN and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

Further pressure was put on the government of President Bashar al-Assad when the International Committee of the Red Cross, which oversees the Geneva Conventions, said fighting had now spread beyond the three hotspots of Idlib, Homs and Hama.

Spokesman Hicham Hassan said Syria was now regarded as a “non-international armed conflict”, which is the technical term for civil war.

“What matters is that international humanitarian law applies wherever hostilities between government forces and opposition groups are taking place across the country,” he said.

The statement is significant because it is the Red Cross’ job to monitor the conduct of the fighting, and to tell warring parties what their obligations are.

Under the Geneva Conventions, indiscriminate attacks on civilians, attacks on medical personnel or the destruction of basic services like water or electricity are forbidden and can be prosecuted as war crimes.

From now on, all those fighting in Syria are officially subject to the laws of war, and could end up at a war crimes tribunal if they disobey them.

The ICRC’s announcement echoes both the UN’s head of peacekeeping Herve Ladsous and President Assad, who has said the country is at war.

Some 16,000 people are thought to have been killed since the uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime began in March 2011.

UN diplomats are attempting to agree a way forward for the organization’s monitoring mission in the country.

The mission’s mandate runs out on Friday, and Western nations are trying to get Russia and China to agree to a strengthened resolution authorizing sanctions.

Kofi Annan’s six-point plan:

1. Syrian-led political process to address the aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people

2. End to violence by all sides; army troops to stop using heavy weapons and withdraw to barracks

3. Parties to allow humanitarian aid

4. Authorities to free political detainees

5. Authorities to ensure freedom of movement for journalists

6. Authorities to allow peaceful demonstrations

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Fighting in Syria has become so widespread that the conflict is now in effect a civil war, says The Red Cross (ICRC).

The change in status means combatants will now be officially subject to the Geneva Conventions, leaving them more exposed to war crimes prosecutions.

The Red Cross had previously regarded only the areas around Idlib, Homs and Hama as war zones.

Meanwhile, Syrian officials are disputing claims that they used heavy weapons in fighting on Thursday.

Activists initially described fighting in the village of Tremseh near Hama as a massacre of dozens of civilians, but later accounts suggested most of the dead were armed rebels.

Fighting in Syria has become so widespread that the conflict is now in effect a civil war

Fighting in Syria has become so widespread that the conflict is now in effect a civil war

The UN accused Syrian forces of using heavy artillery, tanks and helicopters, but Damascus denied those allegations and said just two civilians had been killed.

The accusations, if proved, would mean Damascus had broken an agreement it made with envoy Kofi Annan.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, which oversees the Geneva Conventions, said fighting had now spread beyond the three hotspots of Idlib, Homs and Hama.

Spokesman Hicham Hassan said Syria was now regards as a “non-international armed conflict”, which is the technical term for civil war.

“What matters is that international humanitarian law applies wherever hostilities between government forces and opposition groups are taking place across the country,” he said.

The statement is significant because it is the Red Cross’ job to monitor the conduct of the fighting, and to tell warring parties what their obligations are.

Under the Geneva Conventions, indiscriminate attacks on civilians, attacks on medical personnel or the destruction of basic services like water or electricity are forbidden and can be prosecuted as war crimes.

From now on, all those fighting in Syria are officially subject to the laws of war, and could end up at a war crimes tribunal if they disobey them.

Last month, the UN’s head of peacekeeping Herve Ladsous also said Syria was in a state of civil war.

And Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has previously said the country is in a state of war.

Some 16,000 people are thought to have been killed since the uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime began in March 2011.

UN diplomats are attempting to agree a way forward for the organization’s monitoring mission in the country.

The mission’s mandate runs out on Friday, and Western nations are trying to get Russia and China to agree to a beefed-up resolution authorizing sanctions.

 

Syrian government forces have renewed their attack on the city of Homs, one of the focal points of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

Video published on the internet purportedly from Homs showed intermittent shelling and black smoke.

UN mediator Kofi Annan is concerned civilians have been trapped in Homs and al-Haffa, a town in Latakia province also said to be under attack.

The US says it fears the government may be planning “another massacre”.

Kofi Annan’s spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, said civilians had been trapped in both Homs and al-Haffa.

Kofi Annan was demanding immediate entry to al-Haffa for UN military observers be allowed, he added.

Syrian government forces have renewed their attack on the city of Homs, one of the focal points of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad

Syrian government forces have renewed their attack on the city of Homs, one of the focal points of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad

As joint envoy for the UN and the Arab League, Kofi Annan brokered a six-point peace plan, including a ceasefire which came into nominal effect two months ago but has now been virtually abandoned.

Syrian army appeared to be using an unmanned surveillance drone to select buildings as targets for shelling.

A steady stream of mortar rounds landing in the old city of Homs at a rate of about one a minute.

The UN team – which has been trying for two days to gain access to the old city – has still not succeeded.

All the UN can do is stand by and watch.

US state department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said it was “deeply alarmed” at “reports from inside Syria that the regime may be organizing another massacre”.

Such an attack could happen, it suggested, in al-Haffa or the towns of Deir el-Zour, Homs or Hama, or in the suburbs of the capital, Damascus.

According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 74 people were killed across Syria on Monday.

An activist website, the Violations Documenting Centre, said there had been 29 deaths in the past week from bombardment in al-Haffa. All but three of the dead were civilians, it added.

These reports cannot be confirmed independently because Syria heavily restricts journalists’ freedom of movement.

The Syrian government blames the violence on foreign-backed armed terrorist gangs.

Separately, UN monitors and human rights activists said Syrian government forces had used helicopters to bombard the town of Rastan, in Homs province.

The town has been under intermittent army shelling “for months”, the Observatory said.

UN spokeswoman Sausan Ghosheh said monitors had seen Syrian helicopters firing on Rastan and another rebel stronghold, Talbisa.

In Talbisa, rebels from the Free Syrian Army captured soldiers from government forces, she added.

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At least 47 people have been killed in an attack by pro-government militia in the embattled Syrian city of Homs, according to human rights activists.

Women and children are said to among those who were reportedly tortured and killed on Sunday night in the neighborhood of Karm el-Zeytoun.

The Syrian government acknowledged the deaths, but blamed “armed terrorists”.

The attack happened hours after UN-Arab League peace envoy Kofi Annan ended his two-day mission to Damascus.

Homs has been under assault for weeks as government forces have tried to root out rebel fighters. Parts of the city are devastated.

The main opposition group, the Syrian National Council (SNC), has called for an emergency UN Security Council meeting to discuss the killings, the AFP news agency reports.

Hundreds of families fled the Karm el-Zaytoun area of the city on Monday after reports of the attack in their neighborhood overnight, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

One activist in Homs, Hadi Abdallah, told the AFP the bodies of 26 children and 21 women were found, some with their throats slit and others bearing stab wounds.

At least 47 people have been killed in an attack by pro-government militia in the embattled Syrian city of Homs

At least 47 people have been killed in an attack by pro-government militia in the embattled Syrian city of Homs

Both the opposition Syrian Revolution General Commission (SRGC) and the Local Coordination Committees (LCC) put the toll at 45.

The SRGC said that some of the victims had been burned alive with heating fuel poured over them and others had their necks and limbs broken.

Mulham al-Jundi, an opposition activist and member of the SNC, said Karm el-Zeytoun was experiencing a military bombardment similar to the one seen in Baba Amr district in recent weeks.

He said government troops were firing rockets from tanks outside the neighborhood, then going in “and killing the families who stay inside these areas”.

Reports are difficult to verify because of tight restrictions on independent media operating in Syria.

Footage posted on YouTube, said to show the bodies of men, women and children killed in the attack, made for grim viewing.

In one video, at least 11 bodies can be seen, including at least four young children covered in blood, he adds.

Syrian state television accused “armed terrorist gangs” of carrying out the killings, saying the bodies had been filmed in an effort to discredit the government.

Both the LCC and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights blame the pro-government Shabiha militia for the attack.

The Shabiha has been blamed for many of the atrocities carried out since the uprising began nearly a year ago.

Activists say their presence has allowed the government to deny any involvement in the most brutal actions against protesters.

Kofi Annan left Syria on Sunday after two days off talks with President Bashar al-Assad, saying he was “optimistic” that a peace deal could be found.

He said he had presented Bashar al-Assad with “concrete proposals” to bring an end to the bloodshed, but gave no hint that a deal was imminent.

Syria will be on the agenda when US Security Council foreign ministers meet in New York later.

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