Beirut: A Syrian pipeline carrying oil from the east of the country to a vital refinery in Homs was blown up Thursday in what the official news agency SANA said was an act of sabotage by an armed terrorist group.
Opposition activists said flames and clouds of thick black smoke were seen at the site of the explosion in a suburb of the city, the epicenter of popular unrest against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that began in March.
"This is the main pipeline that feeds the Homs refinery," said Rami Abdulrahman of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The activist network also reported seven people killed in Homs Thursday by snipers and in "random" shootings.
Popular protests began in Syria nine months ago, inspired by the wave of revolt across the Arab world. The ferocity of Assad`s crackdown on protests triggered desertions from the armed forces, and now thousands of army defectors have joined a guerrilla army staging hit-and-run attacks on security forces.
SANA said the pipeline was attacked in the Tal Asour area to the northwest of the refinery on the outskirts of Homs, a city of 800,000 where -- activists say -- about 1,500 people have been killed in the crackdown.
Video on the Internet of the purported blast site showed enormous billows of black smoke rising above a built-up area by a railway line. A Syrian army tank was seen close by.
The Homs refinery serves part of Syria`s domestic requirement for refined oil products. In July SANA said saboteurs blew up an oil export pipeline near Homs which carried oil from Syria`s eastern oilfields to the Mediterranean coast.
No Orders to Kill
Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for 41 years, has denied ordering his troops to kill peaceful protesters, saying only a "crazy" leader kills his own people.
In a television interview with ABC news of the United States he distanced himself from the actions of the security forces, saying it was not his personal army -- a disclaimer that Washington said was simply not credible.
Assad is under growing international pressure, including a threat of sanctions from the Arab League, to cease violent repression of protests - in which the United Nations says over 4,000 people have been killed - and negotiate with opponents.
Rejecting criticism of his government`s action, he told ABC News that "most of the people that have been killed are supporters of the government, not the vice versa."
Syrian activists say around a quarter of the more than 4,500 deaths they have recorded in nine months of protest have been among the security forces. Most foreign media have been excluded from Syria, making it hard to verify events independently.
Hub of Conflict
Major Western powers as well as neighbors Turkey and Jordan are calling on Assad to step down. Turkey imposed a 30 percent duty on imports from Syria Wednesday in retaliation for a similar tax imposed on Turkish goods.
With exports of its oil effectively suspended owing to sanctions, Syria has plenty of raw petroleum in stock but limited refining capacity, of which the Homs installation now in a hub of the conflict is a key part.
Protesters are calling for a peaceful "dignity strike" by Syrians at the weekend as what organizers say will be the first stage of a general campaign of civil disobedience.
Schools, universities, shops, public transport and government services are being urged to refuse work Sunday and close highways.
SANA said the army fought back against gunmen who tried to block the Aleppo highway in the tense Hama district on Wednesday, killing one "terrorist."
Experts defused seven improvised bombs in Hama district, it said. An army pilot was shot in front of his home, it said.
An activist website said an army armored personnel carrier was destroyed in clashes between troops and defectors near the radio station in the city of Saraqeb on the Hama-Aleppo highway. Heavy gunfire was reported in Hama city Wednesday afternoon.
The site said three army defectors were killed in a firefight with regular army units in a rural area of Hama and a woman was killed by gunfire in the Homs suburb of Al-Hawla.
On the tense border with Turkey, Syrian troops opened fire in sustained bursts Wednesday, according to residents of Turkish villages.
A member of the Syrian National Council, an exile group seeking an end to Assad`s rule, said the SNC would present a plan for a transition of power shortly in the next few days.
"The plan will be a sort of roadmap for a peaceful transition, with article one being that Assad has to resign and leave," said SNC member Bassma Kodmani.
"We hope that it will be supported by the Arab world and the international community," she said during a meeting with European lawmakers in Brussels.
She warned again about the threat of civil war in Syria. "The first (objective) is the protection of the civilian population, and putting an end to the killings, which might bring us into a civil war, into militarization."