Damascus: Syrian forces pounded the city of Rastan with shells on Sunday after routing rebel fighters from nearby Homs, monitors said, as the Red Cross awaited the go-ahead to evacuate wounded from the battered region.
The assault on mainly rebel-held Rastan came as China urged all parties in Syria to "unconditionally" end the violence and a monitoring group said 44 people had been killed in various parts on the country on Saturday.
"Since dawn, the positions of deserters in the north of Rastan have been subject to intensive shelling," Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP.
The rebel fighters on February 5 declared Rastan to be "liberated" from President Bashar al-Assad's control, but since Homs was overrun by regime forces on Thursday, the deserters have been bracing for an onslaught on Rastan and on Qusayr, also near Homs.
"They are the two cities where there are concentrations of rebels in the centre of the country and we have been expecting they would be the next targets of the regime's attacks on deserters," Abdel Rahman said.
Rastan is a strategic city as, like Homs, it falls on the main road linking Damascus with northern Syria.
The Observatory had on Friday reported 12 civilians, including five children, killed when a rocket slammed into a crowd of protesters in Rastan.
It also said parts of the city were subjected to shelling and heavy gunfire by Assad's forces.
AFP was not immediately able to verify the Observatory's reports due to restrictions on foreign journalists in Syria.
The rebels fled the Baba Amr section of Homs on Thursday in the face of a withering ground assault by regime forces following a month-long shelling blitz which the US-based Human Rights Watch said had killed some 700 people.
HRW said shells sometimes fell in Baba Amr at a rate of 100 an hour and that satellite images showed 640 buildings visibly damaged, but stressed that the real picture could be worse.
The Syrian authorities have been sharply criticised by the international community for barring Red Cross convoys from entering Baba Amr to evacuate the wounded and deliver relief supplies.
The Red Cross said none of its teams had yet been allowed to enter Baba Amr.
"We are still in talks," International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) spokesman Saleh Dabbakeh told AFP late on Saturday.
Red Crescent operations chief Khaled Erksoussi said: "The authorities told us that we're being denied access for security reasons."
The United States has condemned the "horrific" brutality in Syria while French President Nicolas Sarkozy said what is happening "is scandalous."
Britain and Turkey joined the outcry, accusing the regime of committing a crime by barring the relief convoys from entering Baba Amr.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the refusal to grant humanitarian aid access to citizens affected by the violence showed how "criminal" the regime had become.
His Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu said the regime's "savagery must stop," calling for an international response.
On Friday, a seven-truck convoy organised by the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society was barred from entering Baba Amr.
Syrian authorities said the decision was taken for security reasons, namely the presence of bombs and landmines.
But UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon demanded unconditional humanitarian access to Syrian cities, saying there were "grisly" reports of summary executions and torture in Homs, Syria's third largest city.
British photographer Paul Conroy, wounded in a rocket attack in Baba Amr on February 22 that killed two colleagues, said the bombardment of the besieged city amounted to a "medieval siege and slaughter," and denounced the Damascus government as "murderers".
"It's not a war, it's a massacre, an indiscriminate massacre of men, women and children," said Conroy, 47, speaking from a hospital bed in Britain after being smuggled into Lebanon.
China, which twice joined Russia in blocking UN Security Council resolutions against Syria's lethal crackdown on dissent, urged an end to the violence.
Xinhua news agency cited a foreign ministry statement attributed to an unnamed official calling for dialogue between the Syrian regime and those expressing "political aspirations."
But the official reportedly added: "We oppose anyone interfering in Syria's internal affairs under the pretext of 'humanitarian' issues.'"
The United Nations says more than 7,500 people have been killed since March last year in a crackdown by Syrian forces on pro-democracy demonstrations.
Story first published:
March 04, 2012 16:43 IST