Beirut: More than 200 people were killed in shelling by Syrian forces in the city of Homs, activists said on Saturday, as the UN Security Council prepared to vote on a draft resolution backing an Arab call for President Bashar al-Assad to give up power.
Death tolls cited by activists and opposition groups ranged from 217 to 260, making the Homs attack the deadliest so far in Assad`s crackdown on protests which erupted 11 months ago, inspired by uprisings that overthrew three Arab leaders.
Residents said Syrian forces began shelling the Khalidiya neighbourhood at around 8 pm (1 pm EDT) on Friday using artillery and mortars. They said at least 36 houses were completely destroyed with families inside.
"We were sitting inside our house when we started hearing the shelling. We felt shells were falling on our heads," said Waleed, a resident of Khalidiya.
As news of the violence spread, a crowd of Syrians stormed the Syrian embassy in Cairo in protest, and rallies broke out outside Syrian missions in Britain, Germany and the United States.
It was not immediately clear what had prompted Syrian forces to launch such an intense bombardment, just as diplomats at the Security Council were discussing the draft resolution supporting the Arab League demand for Assad to step aside.
Some activists said the violence was triggered by a wave of Army defections in Homs, a stronghold of protests and armed insurgents who Assad has vowed to crush.
"The death toll is now at least 217 people killed in Homs, 138 of them killed in the Khalidiya district," Rami Abdulrahman, head of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said, citing witnesses.
"Syrian forces are shelling the district with mortars from several locations, some buildings are on fire. There are also buildings which got destroyed."
A Syrian activist said Assad forces bombarded Khalidiya, a key anti-Assad district, to scare other rebel neighbourhoods. "It does not seem that they get it. Even if they kill 10 million of us, the people will not stop until we topple him."
The opposition Syrian National Council said 260 civilians were killed, describing it as "one of the most horrific massacres since the beginning of the uprising in Syria".
It added that it believed Assad`s forces were preparing for similar attacks around Damascus and in the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour.
Another group, the Local Coordination Committees, gave a death toll of over 200. It is not possible to verify activist or state media reports as Syria restricts independent media access.
Video footage on the Internet showed at least eight bodies assembled in a room, one of them with the top half of its head blown off. A voice on the video said the bombardment was continuing as the footage was filmed.
One activist said residents were using primitive tools to rescue the people. They feared many were buried under rubble.
"We are not getting any help, there are no ambulances or anything. We are removing the people with our own hands," he said, adding there were only two field hospitals treating the wounded. Each one had a capacity to deal with 30 people, but he estimated the total number of wounded at 500.
"We have dug out at least 100 bodies so far, they are placed in the two mosques."
At the United Nations, the Security Council was due to meet at 10 am (1500 GMT) to vote on a draft resolution endorsing an Arab League plan calling for Assad to resign.
It was unclear if Russia, which has opposed significant council action on Syria would vote in favour, abstain or veto it.
Western diplomats in New York said the latest violence might make it more difficult for Russia to block it. "Would they dare, with what is happening in Homs?" one diplomat said.
The British UN mission posted on Twitter: "After the horror in Homs Friday (it is) vital all Council members back (the) resolution".
Russia has balked at any language that would open to door to "regime change" in Syria, its crucial Middle East ally where Moscow operates a naval base.
In Cairo, a crowd stormed the Syrian embassy smashing furniture and setting fire to parts of the building in protest over the Homs bloodshed.
The gate of the embassy was broken and furniture was smashed on the second floor of the building, a witness said. It was the second attack on the mission in a week.
In London, more than 100 Syrians hurled stones at the Syrian embassy, smashing windows and shouting slogans, and five people were arrested after trying to break in, according to TV reports.
In Washington, about 50 people took part in a nighttime rally outside Syria`s embassy, chanting "Down with Assad".
Some carried signs including one that juxtaposed pictures of Assad and Adolf Hitler. "We want to show solidarity with the people in Syria being killed every day," said Mohammad Kousha, a Syrian living in Washington.
In the cities of Hama and Idlib, activists said hundreds of people took to the streets in solidarity. They chanted in Idlib: "Homs is bombarded, and you are still sleeping?"