"Friends of Syria" meet as Assad pummels Homs

A young girl allegedly wounded in government shelling of Homs in Syria is seen on a hospital bed in neighboring Lebanon, where she was smuggled for treatment, Feb. 23, 2012. CBS

Updated at 5:38 a.m. Eastern.

BEIRUT - Medics stitch wounds with thread used for clothing. Hungry residents risk Syrian government sniper fire or shelling to hunt for dwindling supplies of bread and canned food on the streets of the besieged city of Homs.

The opposition stronghold was being destroyed "inch by inch," by government forces, with collapsed walls and scorched buildings, according to accounts Thursday, while Western and Arab leaders hoped to silence the guns long enough to rush in relief aid.

The government's fierce attempt to quell the near-year-old uprising spread with brutal force on Thursday into the northern Idlib province, meanwhile, with shelling reported there and in other towns north of Homs. No casualty figures were immediately available.

The pressure for "humanitarian corridors" into the central Syrian city of Homs and other places caught in President Bashar Assad's crushing attacks appeared to be part of shifts toward more aggressive steps against his regime after nearly a year of bloodshed and thousands of deaths in an anti-government uprising.

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CBS News correspondent Clarissa Ward says doctors are few and medical supplies almost non-existent behind rebel lines in Syria. Syrian forces are not allowing ambulances in or out, and the only way to evacuate those in need of medical care is to smuggle them out on motorcycles, donkeys, or on the backs of volunteers who risk their lives to ferry them across the border to private hospitals in places like northern Lebanon. (Click on the player above to see Ward's full report on the humanitarian plight)

Over time, what started as an honest question has turned into an angry rebuke, says Ward. Rebels and residents of Homs ask journalists all the time how it is that the West can stand by and watch people die.

In back-to-back announcements, U.N.-appointed investigators in Geneva said a list for possible crimes against humanity prosecution reaches as high as Assad, and international envoys in London — including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton — made final touches to an expected demand for Assad to call a cease-fire within days to permit emergency shipments of food and medicine.

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Washington and European allies remain publicly opposed to direct military intervention. But there have been growing signs that Western leaders could back efforts to open channels for supplies and weapons to the Syrian opposition, which includes breakaway soldiers from Assad's military.

In a sign of the international divide, however, key Assad ally Russia said Moscow and Beijing remain opposed to any foreign interference in Syria. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev spoke by telephone with the president of the United Arab Emirates and emphasized that "foreign interference, attempts to assess the legitimacy of the leadership of a state from the outside, run counter to the norms of international law and are fraught with the threat of regional and global destabilization," the Kremlin said.

"It is a deeply frustrating situation," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told BBC radio ahead of the London talks. He said that the Assad regime "has continued to act seemingly with impunity."

At least 16 people were killed across Syria on Thursday, activists said. One group, the Local Coordination Committees, puts the number at 90, with attacks ranging from mountain villages to areas near the capital of Damascus. The reason for the differing tolls was not immediately clear. The shelling resumed Friday morning, with at least five people killed by artillery fire, according to activists.

The most intense offensive, however, remained on beleaguered Homs, Syria's third-largest city. Its defiance — amid hundreds of civilian casualties in the past weeks — has eroded Assad's narrative that the uprising is the work of "armed thugs" and foreign plots.

In spite of the ongoing bloodshed and a vow by opposition groups to boycott the vote, CBS News' George Baghdadi reports the Assad regime is going ahead with plans for a national referendum next week on a new constitution, drafted by a charter group, which would effectively end Assad's Ba'ath party's monopoly on power.

The referendum was the regime's most recent move to quell the unrest by offering political concessions to the opposition, but it was flatly rejected amid the mounting violence.

Images posted online and accounts from activists and correspondents smuggled in — including two Western journalists killed Wednesday — also have stirred comparisons to sieges such as Misrata during last year's Arab Spring revolt in Libya.

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The epicenter — the Baba Amr neighborhood on the city's southeast corner — is a collection of slum-like apartment blocks with peeling paint and neglected older homes. They draw in workers and fortune-seekers from across Syria to a place known as the "mother of the poor" because of its cheaper cost of living, compared with Damascus or Aleppo.

"They are blanketing Baba Amr with shells and snipers. They are destroying it street by street, inch by inch," local activist Omar Shaker told The Associated Press.

Residents say 70 percent of the area is now uninhabitable in harsh winter weather with temperatures dipping close to freezing some nights. Walls have collapsed; windows are shattered from shells that fall as much as two-a-minute during some of the heaviest barrages.

Another Homs activist, Mulham al-Jundi, called the conditions "catastrophic" in parts of the city, spreading over a valley in central Syria just 18 miles from the Lebanese border. Long lines form at even rumors of bread, cans of food or fuel for heaters, he said.

"There simply isn't enough to go around anymore," said Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Syria's state-run media pushed back with its own version: Running photos on the official news agency SANA that claim to show markets full of food in Homs. It called the claims about food shortages "fabricating lies."

Activists give a very different view. Bodies are buried wherever people can find space, they say. The wounded are too scared to try to reach government-controlled hospitals in other parts of the city. Instead, they stagger into makeshift clinics in kitchens and offices, al-Jundi said.

He said clothing thread is now used after surgical sutures ran out. In some places, medics conduct operations by only the light of an office lamp. In the Bab Drieb neighborhood, volunteers get a crash course in basic first aid before being put to work.

"I saw a nurse teaching a couple of people what to do. They had no idea," said al-Jundi. "It's unbelievable and tragic."

Homs — which is mostly Sunni — was an early flashpoint of dissent against Assad's regime, which is led by the minority Alawite community, which has Shiite power Iran as its main patron.

In April, protesters gathered at the central Clock Square in Homs, bringing mattresses, food and water in hopes of emulating Cairo's Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution. Homs had a reputation for tolerance between Syria's religions and Muslim sects, said Mohammad Saleh, an opposition figure who fled the city, but Sunnis have increasingly felt pushed into an underclass status by Assad.

A Western intelligence official said the Syrian military has the ability to "level Homs if it wanted to." But the risks of backlash from Syria's majority Sunnis — including many military officers — is far too great, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity under briefing rules.

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