By Ben Hubbard Associated Press
BEIRUT — A Syrian activist group reported Monday that 144 people have been killed across the country, scores of them in the embattled opposition stronghold of Homs by security forces as they tried to flee. A team from the Syrian arm of the Red Cross delivered aid to one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods after days of trying to reach the area.
The activist group did not say whether all 144 died on Monday or were killed over the past few days. Many of the casualties were believed to be from the rebel-controlled Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs, which the Syrian Arab Red Crescent entered late Monday. Also in the neighborhood are two wounded foreign journalists along with the bodies of two of their colleagues who were killed last week.
European and American diplomats and aid workers have been trying desperately to find a way to evacuate them, but Red Cross spokeswoman Carla Haddad said late Monday that the Red Crescent had not managed to get them out. She did not know whether the group had stopped trying for the evening.
Homs has emerged as the center of the 11-month-old uprising seeking to oust authoritarian President Bashar Assad and has borne the brunt of his regime’s bloody crackdown on dissent. Parts of the city have been surrounded for weeks, making it impossible for rescue workers to reach the wounded and for families to bring their dead and injured to the hospital.
Reports by numerous activists that more than 60 bodies were brought to the hospital, all of whom appeared to have died in one incident, reflect the spreading carnage.
The high death toll reported by the Local Coordination Committees activist group is sure to add to the growing international pressure on Assad to give up power. But so far, his regime has shown no signs that it is ready to leave peacefully.
Syrian officials announced the results of a referendum on a new constitution held Sunday that Syrian authorities lauded as a step toward political reform.
The referendum allows at least in theory for opening the country’s political system. It approves a new constitution, which allows for a multiparty system in Syria, which has been ruled by the Baath party since it took power in a coup in 1963. Assad’s father, Hafez, took power in another coup in 1970.
It also imposes a limit of two seven-year terms on the president, meaning Assad could remain legally in power through 2028.
The U.S. and its allies dismissed the vote as a “farce” meant to justify the regime’s bloody crackdown on dissent. Syria’s main opposition groups boycotted the vote, and violence elsewhere prevented polling.
Syrian state TV said 89 percent of eligible voters approved the new document, while nine percent rejected it. It put turnout at 57 percent of Syria’s 14.9 million eligible voters.
Representatives of more than 60 countries met in Tunisia last week to forge a unified strategy to push Assad from power and began planning a civilian peacekeeping mission to deploy after the regime falls. On Monday, the European Union imposed new sanctions.
Syria has been able to count on allies China and Russia to protect it from condemnation by the U.N. Security Council. Both staunchly opposed any interference in Syria’s affairs.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned Monday against military intervention in Syria and blasted the West, saying it had backed the Arab Spring to advance its interests in the region.
In Damascus, a Syrian official accused the West of trying to destabilize the country for its own gain and warned that militarizing the opposition is a big mistake that will backfire.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi told The Associated Press in a rare interview that dialogue among all parties is the only way to end the conflict.
“The West took advantage of the awakening of the Syrian street. Instead of helping Syria to overcome this painful crisis, they are using this to hit the stability of Syria for other geopolitical reasons,” he said.
Activists groups said Monday that the death toll for 11 months of unrest has now surpassed 8,000 people.
The diplomatic pressure on Syria comes as the humanitarian and security situation on the ground is collapsing. The Local Coordination Committees said 64 of those reported dead on Monday were fleeing shelling in the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs when security forces stopped them at a checkpoint in the city’s Abil area and killed them.
Another activist in Baba Amr, reached via Skype, said a security officer who had seen a report on the incident leaked its contents to activists, with whom he sympathizes.
The activist, Abu Mohammed Ibrahim, said the group left the neighborhood Sunday evening and were stopped at a checkpoint, where security forces loaded them onto four busses. A while later, the buses stopped and the soldiers started killing passengers. Locals found the bodies dumped in two places outside of town on Monday, the activist said.
A second activist group, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said 68 bodies were brought to the hospital in Homs and that they were found between the villages of Ram al-Anz and al-Ajriyeh.
But the group’s head, Rami Abdul-Rahman, said no one had identified the dead or knew where they were from.
“We know they are from Homs, but we don’t know anything for sure about who they are or how they died,” he said.
None of the death tolls could be independently verified.
Some of the worst fighting in Syria’s nearly one-year-long conflict has come in Homs, where residents have been bombarded by Syrian government forces for nearly four weeks.
Two western journalists were killed in government shelling in Homs last week, and two other journalists injured.
Poland said Monday its diplomats are working with U.S., British and French authorities to evacuate the two reporters — Edith Bouvier of France and Paul Conroy of Britain — as well as the bodies of American Marie Colvin and Frenchman Remi Ochlik, who were killed in the same attack.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy accused Syrian authorities of assassinating Colvin and Ochlik by targeting a makeshift media center where they were killed.
“When the Syrian army fires shells several times on a building that they perfectly well knew was a press center … it’s an assassination,” he said during an interview with RTL.