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Syria: Homs attack is a game-changer

The onslaught in Syria marks a new chapter in which further bloodshed appears inevitable.

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A protester holds a sign during a demonstration against the regime of Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, and his crackdown on pro-democracy protests on Feb. 4, 2012 in London. (Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Abu Yaman used to work at the oil refinery in Homs, where production helped Syria maintain cheap subsidized heating oil and fuel, as well as free health care and 24-hour electricity.

Today, Abu Yaman’s refinery has become a military base, its main pipelines destroyed, state hospitals stormed by secret police, electricity cut and makeshift home clinics overwhelmed with casualties as Homs endures an onslaught of rockets and mortars in the regime’s worst massacre of civilians since the uprising began 11 months ago.

With rights group Avaaz reporting at least 258 people killed — including 72 children and 42 women — in a single night of shelling just hours before Russia and China vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the government of President Bashar al-Assad, analysts warn the onslaught in Syria marks a new chapter in which further bloodshed appears inevitable.

In shelling by tanks, artillery and what several sources inside Homs said were multiple rocket launchers, Syrian security forces have killed at least 350 people since late Friday, prompting the US to close its embassy in Damascus and withdraw its ambassador and remaining staff.

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“Its own supporters believe the regime has shown too much restraint and they have been increasingly vocal in calling for a crackdown,” Peter Harling, the Damascus-based Syria Project Director at the International Crisis Group, told GlobalPost.

“The situation in Syria is now entering a phase of extreme violence. The regime has not until now made use of all the fire power at its disposal. Now that Russia torpedoed the one political mechanism on the table, the armed struggle will take greater importance.”

An activist from Khaldiyye, the first opposition-held neighborhood of Homs to be targeted in the onslaught that began Friday around 10 p.m., gave a graphic account of an almost apocalyptic night of terror in the city that is already the hardest hit by the government crackdown.

“We are used to shelling so when it started we thought it would only last a few minutes, so everyone stayed indoors,” said Waleed Fares. “But then we heard a terrible, loud sound.”

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The sound was from a local apartment block, home to 36 flats, Fares said, collapsing after being hit repeatedly by rockets and shells.

Rushing outside to help recover the injured and dead, Fares said the sound of mosques calling out “God is great” mixed with the explosion of shells and the cries of those in pain.

“There were children crying, women screaming, standing in their nightclothes because they had not had time to dress,” Fares said.

“We took the bodies and the injured to a nearby park. I counted around 40 bodies from the building collapse. The injuries were appalling: People missing limbs; people crushed so badly you couldn’t recognize them; people pierced by metal.”

Even in the park, terrified residents said they were not safe. “Three bombs fell on the park and killed around 30 people,” Fares said, one of them his friend, Omar Zarour, who was also trying to rescue trapped neighbors.

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Omar Shakir, an activist in Bab Amr, another Sunni-majority neighborhood in Homs, said the shelling was like, “random machine gun fire, only much, much heavier.”

“The bombs fell like rain,” said Shakir, whose best friend, 23-year-old Madher Tayyara, a student turned volunteer medic died on Friday at home from shrapnel in his chest and head. “You didn’t know where they would fall. You can only pray.”

Several hospitals treating the dead and dying were raided by security forces, according to reporting from activists in Homs gathered by Avaaz, which described the humanitarian situation inside the city as appalling.

Small field hospitals set up to treat protesters were suddenly overwhelmed with hundreds of injured, according to activists. With security forces laying siege to neighborhoods and preventing medical supplies from reaching the area, activists feared many of the up to 1,000 people injured would die because there was no way to treat them.

One of the hospitals targeted was the Hikmat in Homs’ Inshaat neighborhood, where a video uploaded to YouTube yesterday appeared to show a doctor walking through a hospital whose roof was