AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian artillery pounded rebel-held areas of Homs Monday as President Bashar al-Assad’s government announced that voters had overwhelmingly approved a new constitution in a referendum derided as a sham by his critics at home and abroad.
While foreign powers argued over whether to arm the rebels, the Syrian Interior Ministry said the reformed constitution, which could keep Assad in power until 2028, had received 89.4 percent approval from more than eight million voters.
Syrian dissidents and Western leaders dismissed as a farce Sunday’s vote, conducted in the midst of the country’s bloodiest turmoil in decades, although Assad says the new constitution will lead to multi-party elections within three months.
Officials put national voter turnout at close to 60 percent, but diplomats who toured polling stations in Damascus saw only a handful of voters at each location. On the same day, at least 59 people were killed in violence around the country.
The outside world has proved powerless to halt the killing in Syria, where repression of initially peaceful protests has spawned an armed insurrection by army deserters and others.
Qatar joined Saudi Arabia in advocating arming Syrian rebels, given that Russia and China have twice used their vetoes to block any action by the United Nations Security Council.
“I think we should do whatever is necessary to help them, including giving them weapons to defend themselves,” Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said in Oslo.
Arab countries should help lead a military force to provide a safe haven for anti-Assad forces inside Syria, he added.
Assad says he is fighting foreign-backed “armed terrorist groups” and his main allies – Russia, China and Iran – fiercely oppose any outside intervention intended to add him to the list of Arab autocrats unseated by popular revolts in the past year.
China called U.S. policy in the region “super-arrogant” and Russia’s Vladimir Putin warned against any action that bypassed the U.N. Security Council, where Moscow has a veto.
HOMS BOMBARDED AGAIN
Shells and rockets crashed into Sunni Muslim districts of Homs that have already endured weeks of bombardment as Assad’s forces, led by officers from his minority Alawite sect, try to stamp out an almost year-long revolt against his 11-year rule.
“Intense shelling started on Khalidiya, Ashira, Bayada, Baba Amro and the old city at dawn,” opposition activist Mohammed al-Homsi told Reuters from the city. “The army is firing from the main thoroughfares deep into alleyways and side streets.”
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said nine people had been killed by the attacks on Baba Amro.
Opposition accounts of grim conditions in Homs were echoed by those from other observers, including the Red Cross.
Crowds gathered in the sensitive Damascus district of Kfar Souseh, home to several security agency headquarters, to mourn three young men killed in a protest Sunday, a witness said.
“Only Allah, Syria and freedom” they chanted, instead of the officially sanctioned slogan “Only Allah, Syria and Bashar.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross, which says the plight of civilians in Homs is worsening by the hour, has failed to secure a pause in the fighting to allow the wounded to be evacuated and desperately needed aid to be delivered.
“We are still in negotiations,” ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan said in Geneva. “Every hour, every day, makes a difference.”
The relief agency has been pursuing talks with the Syrian authorities and opposition forces for days to secure access to besieged neighborhoods such as Baba Amro, where local activists say hundreds of wounded need treatment and thousands of civilians are short of water, food and medical supplies.
Four Western journalists are trapped in Baba Amro, two of them wounded. An American reporter and a French photographer were killed there on February 22.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he hoped the journalists could be rescued soon. “It’s very tense, but things are starting to move, it seems,” he told RTL radio.
Russia said its diplomats in Syria were trying to arrange a humanitarian truce in Homs and suggested that Western countries should pressure rebel forces there to cooperate.
International consternation has grown over the turmoil in Syria, but there is little appetite in the West for military action akin to the U.N.-backed NATO campaign in Libya.
Qatar’s prime minister suggested this was indeed a model to follow, but said Arab and Islamic nations should take the lead.
“It seems the government and president of Syria have taken a decision to continue the killing, hoping that they could stop the uprising,” Sheikh Hamad said. “We will stay with the people. We will help them and do what is needed to be done.”
Qatar, a small but wealthy Gulf state, helped Libyan rebels oust Muammar Gaddafi last year with arms and special forces.
Criticizing the Russian and Chinese veto, Sheikh Hamad said: “Since we failed in the Security Council … we have to try to do something to send enough military help to stop the killing.”
Sarkozy said, however, that Western powers hoped diplomacy could change minds: “We are putting pressure on the Russians first and the Chinese afterwards so that they lift their veto.”
Russian Prime Minister Putin reiterated Moscow’s opposition to any military intervention in Syria.
“I very much hope the United States and other countries … do not try to set a military scenario in motion in Syria without sanction from the U.N. Security Council,” he said Putin.
The European Union agreed more sanctions, targeting Syria’s central bank and several cabinet ministers, curbing gold trading with state entities and banning cargo flights from the country.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the measures were meant to “increase the stranglehold” on Damascus.
He pledged support for an Arab League plan that calls on Assad to step down as part of a political transition in Syria.
Moscow, however, advocates dialogue between the Syrian government and opposition to end the bloodshed.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the referendum “an important step on the path of reforms” and criticized as “one-sided” Friday’s “Friends of Syria” gathering in Tunis at which Western and Arab powers met Syrian opposition leaders.
The new constitution drops a clause making Assad’s Baath party the leader of state and society, allows political pluralism and limits a president to two seven-year terms.
But this restriction is not retrospective, implying that Assad, 46 and already in power since 2000, could serve two further terms after his current one expires in 2014.
The opposition dismisses the reforms on offer, saying that Assad, and his father who ruled for 30 years before him, have long paid only lip service to existing legal obligations.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told France’s iTele television that the referendum was a “sinister masquerade.”
Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, now the new U.N.-Arab League envoy on Syria, was holding separate talks in Geneva with Juppe and Iran’s foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi on the sidelines of a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting.
Iran is Assad’s closest ally. The main Shi’ite Muslim power, it has religious ties to Assad’s Alawites and is confronting the Sunnis who dominate the Arab League – both the Sunni Islamists who have done well out of the past year’s democratic changes and autocratic, Western-backed leaders in the Gulf and elsewhere.