BEIRUT - The Syrian army shelled residential areas in central Syria on Wednesday, killing at least 18 people including an 8-year-old, human rights groups and witnessess say, in a sharp escalation in the government's attempts to crush a popular revolt against President Bashar Assad's rule.
Heavy gunfire was heard as at least three residential neighborhoods were hit by tank fire in the besieged city of Homs, which has experienced some of the largest anti-government demonstrations in recent weeks.
"There were loud explosions and gunfire from automatic rifles throughout the night and until this morning," a frightened resident told The Associated Press by telephone. "The area is totally besieged. We are being shelled."
Activists in Damascus who were in touch with residents also reported shelling in Homs, Syria's third-largest city and home to one of its two oil refineries.
The witnesses and activists, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared reprisals, said the shelling was targeting the Bab Sbaa, Bab Amr and Jouret el Aris neighborhoods.
The eyewitness said several people who fled Bab Sbaa through fields told him the area was badly damaged and that the shelling seemed indiscriminate.
Syrian authorities are determined to crush the uprising, which began in the southern city of Daraa in mid-March and quickly spread nationwide. Assad has dispatched army troops backed by tanks to Homs and other communities across the country, and his security troops have carried out sweeping arrests in an attempt to intimidate would-be protesters and quell dissent.
A human rights group reported Tuesday that more than 750 people have been killed in the crackdown so far.
In Washington, Obama administration officials said the first step in a new American approach toward Syria would be to declare that Assad has forfeited his legitimacy to rule, a policy shift that would amount to a call for regime change.
The tougher U.S. line almost certainly would echo demands for "democratic transition" that the administration used in Egypt and is now espousing in Libya, the officials said. But directly challenging Assad's leadership is a decision fraught with problems: Arab countries are divided, Europe is still trying to gauge its response and there are major doubts over how far the United States could go to back up its words with action.
Senators Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., have introduced a resolution calling for the U.S. to withdraw its diplomats and sever ties with Syria.
"Any time the government uses government forces and army forces to kill unarmed forces to hold on to power that makes them illegitimate," Rubio told CBS's "The Early Show" Wednesday. "I hope the United States will be a clear voice saying that."
But, "I don't think anyone is advocating military action in Syria," Rubio said. "I don't think that's the right approach. ... The solution is to be a leading voice in the world. What the U.S. says on the issues matters to people and we are still the most powerful and important country on earth."
Assad has announced a series of reforms, widely viewed as symbolic overtures to appease protesters.
On Wednesday, he was quoted by Syria's private Al-Watan newspaper urging Syrians to cooperate with the government so that the reform process may continue. He also pledged a swift solution to the issue of detainees who were jailed during the unrest.
The newspaper said Assad's remarks were made during a three-hour meeting with a delegation from the suburbs of Damascus including Maadamiyeh, which has been sealed off for days by the army as it pursued what it said were "armed groups."
Despite the security measures, small demonstrations were reported in several areas in the past few days.
Activists said three protesters were killed late Tuesday when government forces fired on demonstrations in Jassem, one of a cluster of villages near the besieged city of Daraa.
The government's heavy-handed response has triggered new international sanctions. The European Union has decided to impose sanctions on 13 Syrian officials, prohibiting them from traveling anywhere in the 27-nation bloc. U.S. sanctions target the assets of two Assad relatives and another top Syrian official. But neither EU nor U.S. sanctions target Assad himself, who succeeded his father as Syria's ruler 11 years ago..
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon urged Syria Wednesday to allow an international aid assessment team to enter Daraa. He told reporters in Geneva he is disappointed the assessment team "has not yet been given the access it needs."
Ban added he had been assured by Assad that the team would be allowed into the city.