AMMAN/BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian forces bombarded districts of the city of Homs in their drive to crush a revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, ahead of a meeting of Arab foreign ministers due to discuss setting up a joint observer mission with the United Nations.
The Local Coordination Committees, an activists' organization, said that according to a tally from doctors at makeshift hospitals, at least 31 people were killed Saturday in the latest attacks in a week-long government siege of Homs, Syria's third largest city, which has been at the heart of an uprising that broke out 11 months ago.
"Tens of shabbiha (militiamen loyal to Assad) along with army snipers and two tanks have deployed at the citadel and they are bombarding Old Homs with mortar rounds and anti-aircraft guns," activist Malek Mohammad said by satellite phone from the city, 140 km (88 miles) north of Damascus.
Mohammed Hassan, another opposition campaigner in Homs, told Reuters by telephone that a 55-year-old woman was among those killed by shellfire on the Baba Amro district.
Assad has dispatched loyal forces into cites and towns across Syria to put down the uprising, drawing armed resistance, defections by soldiers from the Sunni Muslim majority, and international outrage at a crackdown that has killed thousands of civilians.
Ministers from the Arab League, which suspended Syria in response to the crackdown, meet in Cairo Sunday to discuss forming a joint U.N.-Arab monitoring team to Syria in place of an Arab League observer mission that was suspended last month.
An official source at the League said another proposal called for the appointment of a U.N.-Arab League envoy to deal with Syria, adding that some states may also propose the Arab League formally recognize the opposition Syrian National Council.
AVOIDING A BLOODBATH
In a rare sign of compromise, Assad's forces entered the besieged town of Zabadani in the mountains near the border with Lebanon after agreeing a cease-fire with rebels, according to Kamal al-Labwani, an opposition leader in exile.
Under the agreement, reached after a week-long tank and artillery bombardment that killed at least 100 in the town of 20,000, rebel forces were being allowed to leave if they gave up weapons and armour seized from government forces, Labwani said.
"Cooler heads in the military somehow prevailed over whoever has been issuing orders to shell Zabadani with heavy artillery. In the end it was in the interest of the two sides to prevent a bloodbath," Labwani said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that three people had been killed in the bombardment Saturday.
Friday, suicide car bombings targeting security forces killed at least 28 people in Syria's second city of Aleppo, so far on the sidelines of the uprising, authorities said.
Assad has ignored repeated international appeals to halt his crackdown.
For graphic of Homs link.reuters.com/tuc56s
However, the world remains divided over how to end the conflict. A week ago, Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution sponsored by Western and Arab states that backed an Arab League call for Assad to step down.
Sunni Muslim power Saudi Arabia, which has grown increasingly assertive in its efforts to isolate Assad, has circulated a similar draft for the U.N. General Assembly, where resolutions are non-binding but there is no power of veto.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said on Saturday that Moscow could not support a move resting on "the same unbalanced draft resolution text."
The dispute brings no relief to Homs, where activists say the government offensive on mostly Sunni Muslim rebel-held areas has killed at least 300 people in the past week.
Food and medical supplies were running low in blockaded areas and many people were trapped in their homes.
YouTube footage provided by activists showed a doctor at a field hospital next to the body of the woman of 55 reportedly killed Saturday. "Shrapnel hit her in the head and completely drained her brain matter," he says.
Witness accounts could not be independently confirmed as Syria restricts access by most foreign journalists.
The 46-year-old Assad belongs to the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam that has dominated the majority Sunni country since his late father took control in a 1970 coup.
In Damascus, gunmen shot dead a senior Syrian military doctor outside his home in northern Damascus Saturday, the state news agency SANA said.
It blamed an "armed terrorist group" for the assassination of Brigadier-General Issa al-Khouli, whom it described as a doctor and hospital director. He was the most senior figure to have been reported killed in Damascus.
His killing followed a four-hour clash in the capital on Friday night pitting Free Syrian Army rebels against troops backed by armoured vehicles who had entered the neighbourhood of
al-Qaboun, activists said.
The British-based Observatory said 10 soldiers had been killed in an ambush by army defectors using roadside bombs and hand grenades Friday in the rebellious Idlib region.
In Douma, south of Damascus, an officer and eight soldiers defected along with a tank after clashes between army deserters and security forces, it said.
Opposition to Assad has evolved from pro-democracy street protests to armed insurrection over the past 11 months. World powers fear a slide into civil war with knock-on effects for Syria's neighbors - Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel and Lebanon.
Gulf Arab states, the United States, Europe and Turkey hope diplomacy can force Assad out and have ruled out military action of the kind that helped oust Libya's Muammar Gaddafi last year.
Assad can count on the support of Russia, Syria's main arms supplier and an ally stretching back to the Soviet era, as well as Iran. Moscow, which is keen to counter U.S. influence in the Middle East, insists foreign powers should not interfere.
The U.N. assembly is due to discuss Syria Monday and vote
later in the week on the draft resolution, which "fully supports" an Arab League plan floated last month.
Ayham Kamel, an analyst at Eurasia Group, said the Russian and Chinese vetoes showed that change in Syria was not imminent. As rebel forces lacked structure and a unified command, Assad would keep the military edge but find it hard to crush rebels.
"In the next few months, Syria will transition from civil conflict into civil war. Assad's power and control over the country will diminish and civilian casualties on both sides are expected to rise," Kamel said.
Highlighting the danger of the conflict spilling over borders, supporters and opponents of Assad fought in the streets of Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli Saturday, a security source said. Two people were killed and eight wounded, some of them soldiers who had been deployed to halt the fighting.