Syria defies deal and unleashes its tanks to gun down civilians

Syrian tanks mounted with machine-guns opened fire in the city of Homs yesterday, killing at least nine people, activists said.

The shooting came in defiance of a day-old agreement between the Syrian government and the Arab League to end nearly eight months of bloodshed.

A crackdown on dissent and what appears to be growing sectarian bloodshed has turned Homs, Syria’s third-largest city and home to some 800,000 people, into one of the country’s deadliest areas.

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Activists said yesterday tanks fired heavy machine guns and anti-aircraft guns and named two civilians killed in the bombardment.

A refuse truck driver was among others killed elsewhere in the city, where army snipers were reported to be shooting from roof tops.

Residents also reported army reinforcements at roadblocks in towns near the Syrian border with Jordan, and in the Damascus suburb of Harasta, at least 120 protesters were arrested overnight.

The opposition vowed to flood the streets today to test whether the regime will stop using force against peaceful protesters.

“May Friday be the day where all streets and squares become platforms for demonstrations, and for the peaceful struggle toward achieving the downfall of the regime,” said a Syrian activist coalition called the Local Co-ordinating Committees.

The uprising shows no signs of stopping despite a government crackdown that the UN estimates has killed some 3,000 people.

Report of yesterday’s violence came from Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The capture and death of Libyan figurehead Muammar Gaddafi last month only served to invigorate the Syrian protesters, many of whom carry signs and chant slogans warning President Bashar Assad that he will be the next dictator to go.

The latest bloodshed cast a pall over the Arab League accord announced in Cairo.

Under the plan, the Syrian government agreed to pull tanks and armoured vehicles out of cities, stop violence against protesters and release all political prisoners. Syria also agreed to allow journalists, rights groups and Arab League representatives to monitor the situation in the country.

The proposal is the latest in a string of international efforts to ease the crisis, which has led to wide condemnation of the regime. European Union and US sanctions are chipping away at Syria’s ailing economy, and many world leaders have called on Mr Assad to step down.

A spokesman for the Syrian opposition in Cairo, Mo’men Kwafatiya, said Syria’s approval of the Arab League proposal is a manoeuvre to avoid having its membership suspended or frozen in the Arab body, something that Gulf countries have quietly been pushing for.

Najib al-Ghadban, a US-based Syrian activist and member of the opposition Syrian National Council, was sceptical that Syrian President Bashar Assad would hold up his end of the deal, and called the agreement “an attempt to buy more time”. He added: “This regime is notorious for manoeuvring and for giving promises and not implementing any of them.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged Syria to implement the plan, saying the country was of grave concern.

“People have been suffering too much, too long, in Syria,” Mr Ban said, calling the situation “totally unacceptable.”

Syria blames the bloodshed on “armed gangs” and extremists seeking to destabilise the regime.