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Syria denies massacre of 200 in Homs

Updated at 4:42 a.m. Eastern.

BEIRUT - In a barrage of mortar shells, Syrian forces killed 200 people and wounded hundreds in Homs in an offensive that appears to be the bloodiest episode in the nearly 11-month-old uprising, activists said Saturday.

The assault in Homs, which has been one of the main flashpoints of opposition during the uprising, comes as the U.N. Security Council prepares to vote on a draft resolution backing an Arab call for President Bashar Assad to give up power.

The government denied the assault. Syrian TV said the reports were untrue and come in the context of "incitement by the armed groups" against Syria to be exploited at the Security Council.

It claimed that corpses shown in amateur pictures and videos posted online — bodies that activists said were victims of the assault — were purportedly of people kidnapped by "terrorist armed groups" who filmed them to portray them as victims of the alleged shelling.

Alleged victims of a government massacre in Homs, Syria
This image posted to Facebook by Syrian opposition members allegedly shows the corpses of people killed by government shelling in the Khaldiyeh neighborhood of Homs, Feb. 4, 2012. The contents of the photo cannot be independently verified. Opposition groups say more than 200 were killed in the assault. Facebook

Two main opposition groups, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees, said the death toll in Homs was more than 200 people and included women and children in mortar shelling that began late Friday. More than half of the killings — about 140 — were reported in the Khaldiyeh neighborhood.

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"This is the worst attack of the uprising, since the uprising began in March until now," said Rami Abdul-Rahman, the head of the Observatory, which tracks violence through contacts on the ground.

The reports could not be independently confirmed.

It was not immediately clear what precipitated the attack, but there have been reports that army defectors set up checkpoints in the area and were trying to consolidate control.

The LCC called on residents of Homs and surrounding areas to support the people of Khaldiyeh and nearby Bayada by donating blood and housing families fleeing from the bombing.

Earlier on Friday, deadly clashes erupted between government troops and rebels in suburbs of the Syrian capital and villages in the south, sparking fighting that killed at least 23 people, including nine soldiers, activists said.

Assad is trying to crush the revolt with a sweeping crackdown that has so far claimed thousands of lives, but neither the government nor the protesters are backing down and clashes between the military and an increasingly bold and armed opposition have meant many parts of the country have seen relentless violence.

The U.N. Security Council will meet Saturday morning to take up a much-negotiated resolution on Syria, said a diplomat for a Western nation that sits on the council.

The diplomat spoke Friday on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be quoted by the media.

The move toward a vote came after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke by telephone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in an effort to overcome Russian opposition to any statement that explicitly calls for regime change or a military intervention in Syria.

But in an early sign that the Moscow was not prepared to back down, Russia's foreign minister warned Washington that any attempt to put the draft resolution on Syria to vote at the United Nations would lead to "scandal."

Sergey Lavrov said in an interview broadcast Saturday on Russian state television Rossiya that Moscow had submitted its amendments to the Western-backed draft. He said that Russia hopes that "bias will not prevail over common sense."

The U.S. and its partners have ruled out military action but want the global body to endorse an Arab League plan that calls on Assad to hand power over to Syria's vice president.

Russia's deputy foreign minister, Gennady Gatilov, said Friday that Moscow could not support the resolution in its current form. But he expressed optimism that an agreement could be reached, according to state news agency RIA Novosti.

Assad's regime has been intensifying an assault against army defectors and protesters. The U.N. said weeks ago that more than 5,400 people have been killed in violence since March. Hundreds more have been killed since that tally was announced.

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