Bloodiest episode in the nearly 11-month-old uprising

Syrian forces unleashed a barrage of mortars and artillery on the battered city of Homs for hours before dawn on Saturday, sending terrified residents fleeing into basements and killing more than 200 people in what appeared to be the bloodiest episode in the nearly 11-month-old uprising, said activists.

The government denied the assault. It said the reports were part of a “hysterical campaign” of incitement by armed groups against Syria, meant to be exploited at the U.N. Security Council as it prepares to vote on a draft resolution backing an Arab call for President Bashar al-Assad to give up power.

With Syria growing increasingly chaotic, Western and Arab countries have stepped up their push for a U.N. resolution to pressure Mr. Assad. A vote was scheduled for Saturday, but negotiations were continuing to the last minute as Russia, a strong ally of Syria, signalled it would veto any call for Mr. Assad's removal.

Embassies attacked

Tunisia decided to expel Syria's Ambassador in response to the “bloody massacre” in Homs and “no longer recognises” the Assad regime, said an official in the President's office. Angry Syrians stormed their embassies in Berlin, London, Athens, Cairo and Kuwait city, clashing with guards and police and in Cairo setting fire to part of the embassy.

Hours after the Homs assault eased, security forces in the Damascus suburb of Daraya opened fire on Saturday on a funeral procession for victims of a shooting a day earlier, killing seven people, activists said.

There were signs that the bombardment in Homs, Syria's third largest city, was in response to moves by army defectors to solidify their control in several neighbourhoods. There were reports that defectors set up new checkpoints in several areas, and two activists from Homs said defectors attacked a military checkpoint in the Khaldiyeh district on Thursday night and captured 17 soldiers. The activists spoke on condition of anonymity to protect themselves from retaliation.

If defector activity was the spark, the assault signals a new willingness by the regime to unleash more devastating force against the dissidents. The defectors, part of a force called the Free Syrian Army, have grown increasingly bold in attacks on the military and attempts to take overt control in pro-opposition areas. Khaldiyeh, a mainly Sunni neighbourhood in the mixed city, took the brunt of the assault. Residents described a hellish night of ceaseless shelling that sent them fleeing to lower floors and basements of buildings.

“We were sitting at home and the mortars just started slamming into buildings around us,” said Mohammad, a Khaldiyeh resident. “There was nothing that prompted it, not even protests ... people are terrified today,” he added by telephone.

Online video by activists showed chaotic scenes in a makeshift clinic set up in what appeared to be a Khaldiyeh mosque, the room filled with wounded men with gashes and broken limbs being bandaged. Several dead bodies were shown. In another video, fire ravaged a house that had been shelled, as people desperately poured water on the blaze.

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