Activists say Syrian tanks shell Homs intensively

This image from amateur video made available by Shaam News Network, purports to show black smoke rising in the air in Homs, Syria, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012.

BEIRUT — Syrian troops intensively shelled rebel-held neighborhoods in the restive central city of Homs Friday, a day after the U.N. General Assembly condemned human rights violations by the regime, activists said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said shells were slamming into the Homs neighborhoods of Baba Amr, Bayadah, Khaldiyeh and Inshaat. Syrian troops have been attacking the neighborhoods on Feb. 4. Amateur videos showed at least one tank shelling Baba Amr from a close distance.

Homs, a province in central Syria that stretches from the border with Lebanon in the west to the frontiers with Iraq and Jordan in the east, has been one of the key centers of the 11-month-old uprising against President Bashar Assad’s authoritarian rule. As the uprising has become more militarized in recent months with army defectors battling regime forces almost daily, the rebels have taken control of small parts of the province including neighborhoods in the city of Homs and the nearby town of Rastan.

On Thursday, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon accused the Syrian regime of committing “almost certain” crimes against humanity. The U.N. General Assembly also overwhelmingly voted for a resolution that strongly condemns human rights violations by Assad’s government. According to the U.N., more than 5,400 people have been killed since March in the regime’s bloody crackdown.

The 193-member U.N. General Assembly voted 137-12 on the Arab-sponsored resolution calling on Assad to hand power to his vice president and immediately stop the crackdown. There were 17 abstentions.

Though there are no vetoes in the General Assembly and its resolutions are nonbinding, they do reflect world opinion on major issues. Russia and China, who recently vetoed a similar resolution in the U.N. Security Council, voted against the General Assembly measure along with North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba and others who heeded Syria’s appeal against the measure.

Thursday’s high number of “yes” votes was the strongest international condemnation so far of Assad.

“Today, the U.N. General Assembly sent a clear message to the people of Syria: The world is with you,” U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said. Assad “has never been more isolated. A rapid transition to democracy in Syria has garnered the resounding support of the international community. Change must now come.”

The Observatory also reported clashes between troops and defectors in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, saying one civilian and one of the regime forces were killed.

More protests against the regime were expected following Friday prayers as activists called for demonstrations in support of “popular resistance” against Assad’s regime.

In other developments, state-run news agency SANA said that the command of the ruling Baath party has postponed its general conference scheduled for later this month until after a referendum on the country’s new draft constitution is done. It did not say when the conference, last convened in 2005, will be held. It was the second postponement.

On Wednesday, Assad ordered a Feb. 26 referendum on a new constitution that would create a multiparty system in Syria, which has been ruled by the Assad family for 40 years. Such a change would have been unheard of a year ago, and Assad’s regime is touting the new constitution as the centerpiece of reforms aimed at calming Syria’s upheaval.