Syrian activists say 12 killed by military gunfire

Syrian tanks mounted with machine-guns fired Thursday on protesters in the restive city of Homs, killing at least four people, activists said.
Anti-government protesters shout slogans against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad during the funeral of Sunni Muslim villagers killed Wednesday in Hula, near the city of Homs. (Reuters)

Syrian tanks mounted with machine-guns fired on a city at the centre of the country's uprising Thursday, defying a day-old agreement between the Syrian government and the Arab League to end nearly eight months of bloodshed, activists said.

At least 12 people were killed in the tank fire and other violence in Homs, according to two main Syrian activist groups.

A crackdown on dissent and what appears to be growing sectarian bloodshed has turned Homs, Syria's third-largest city and home to some 800,000 people, into one of the country's deadliest areas.

The opposition vowed to flood the streets Friday to test whether the regime will stop using force against peaceful protesters.

"May Friday be the day where all streets and squares become platforms for demonstrations, and for the peaceful struggle toward achieving the downfall of the regime," said a Syrian activist coalition called the Local Coordinating Committees.

The uprising shows no signs of stopping despite a government crackdown that the UN estimates has killed some 3,000 people. The capture and death of ousted Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi last month only served to invigorate the Syrian protesters, many of whom carry signs and chant slogans warning President Bashar Assad that he will be the next dictator to go.

At least 12 people were killed when tanks opened fire in Homs on Thursday, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the activist coalition called the Local Coordinating Committees.

The latest bloodshed cast a pall over the Arab League accord announced Wednesday in Cairo.

Under the plan, Damascus agreed to stop violence against protesters, release all political prisoners and begin a dialogue with the opposition within two weeks. Syria also agreed to allow journalists, rights groups and Arab League representatives to monitor the situation in the country.

Najib al-Ghadban, a U.S.-based Syrian activist and member of the opposition Syrian National Council, was skeptical that Syrian President Bashar Assad would hold up his end of the deal, and called the agreement "an attempt to buy more time."

"This regime is notorious for manoeuvring and for giving promises and not implementing any of them," he said.

Syria blames the violence on "armed gangs" and extremists seeking to destabilize the regime in line with a foreign agenda, an assertion that raised questions about its willingness to cease all forms of violence. Previous attempts to hold dialogue with the opposition were unsuccessful.

The Arab League initiative appears to reflect the group's eagerness to avoid seeing another Arab leader toppled violently and dragged through the streets, as was slain Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi last month. An Arab League decision had paved the way for NATO airstrikes that eventually brought down Gadhafi.