Death toll rises in Syria

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces rained rockets and bombs down on opposition-held neighbourhoods...

A Syrian Kurdish demonstrator holds a sign during a protest against the Syrian government's crackdown on anti-regime protests across Syria on 23 October 2011. AFP

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces rained rockets and bombs down on opposition-held neighbourhoods of the city of Homs on Wednesday, reducing buildings to rubble and killing more than 80 people, including two Western journalists.

The barrages marked an intensification of a nearly three-week offensive to crush resistance in Homs, one of the focal points of a nationwide uprising against Assad's 11-year rule, and prompted further international condemnation.

More than 60 bodies, both rebel fighters and civilians, were recovered from one area of Homs' Baba Amro neighbourhood after an afternoon bombardment, adding to 21 killed earlier in the day, activists said.

"Helicopters flew reconnaissance overhead then the bombardment started," Homs activist Abu Abei told Reuters.

Videos uploaded by opposition activists showed smashed buildings, deserted streets, and doctors treating wounded civilians in primitive conditions in Baba Amro, the main target of Assad's wrath.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy described the deaths of the two journalists, French photographer Remi Ochlik and American Marie Colvin of Britain's_ Sunday Times_, as an assassination and said the Assad era had to end.

"That's enough now," Sarkozy said. "This regime must go and there is no reason that Syrians don't have the right to live their lives and choose their destiny freely. If journalists were not there, the massacres would be a lot worse."

The two journalists were killed when the house in which they were staying after sneaking over the Lebanese border into Homs was hit by rockets.

Sunday Times editor John Witherow said the journalists may have been deliberately targeted.

"Given (Syrian security forces') attitude towards the media, their hostility ...then it is quite reasonable to assume that they were targeting any journalists there," he told the British Broadcasting Corporation.

The last dispatch from Colvin, a veteran war reporter who wore a trademark black eye-patch since being wounded in Sri Lanka in 2001, described the misery inside Baba Amro.

Women and children were crammed together into a basement, huddled in fear and a two-year-old child had died in front of her, she reported on British radio.

Britain's foreign office summoned the Syrian ambassador to London to stress the "grief" felt over the deaths of Colvin and Ochlik, and demanded that British photographer Paul Conroy, injured in the same attack, receive medical treatment.

Reporter Edith Bouvier for French newspaper Le Figaro and Paris-based photographer William Daniels were also wounded in the strike on the Homs house, which global advocacy group Avaaz said had been occupied by journalists and opposition activists.

Bouvier suffered severe injuries to her hip and thigh and was at risk of bleeding to death without urgent medical care, said a member of Avaaz, which has been working with journalists and activists inside Syria.

"We are desperately trying to get her out, doing all we can in extremely perilous circumstances," the source said.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights said government forces killed a total of more than 80 civilians in Homs on Wednesday, mostly in bombardments on Baba Amro, a Sunni Muslim district opposed to Syria's Alawite ruling class.

Several hundred people have been killed in the daily bombardments by the besieging forces using artillery, rockets, sniper fire and Soviet-built T-72 tanks.

Residents fear Assad will subject the city to the same treatment as his late father Hafez inflicted on the rebellious town of Hama 30 years ago, when some 10,000 were killed.

Ground forces have held off from entering opposition areas, as fighters allied to the opposition are ready to take them on.

The army is blocking medical supplies and electricity is cut off 15 hours a day, activists say. Hospitals, schools and shops are shut and government offices have also closed.

A Lebanese official who is close to the Syrian government said Assad wants to batter Homs into submission before a referendum this Sunday on a new constitution.

Assad and his allies Russia and China say the referendum, to be followed by multi-party elections, would satisfy demands for reform as a way to resolve the crisis. Western powers have dismissed it and the Syrian opposition has called for a boycott.

"President Assad wants to finish the Homs situation by Sunday to prepare for the constitutional referendum. Then he will turn to Idlib," the Lebanese official told Reuters in Beirut.