A barrage of gunfire by security forces that left residents cowering in their homes killed at least six people and wounded several others Wednesday in Homs, a hotbed of opposition to President Bashar Assad's autocratic regime, activists and residents said.
For days, security forces have been pursuing activists and anti-government protesters in Homs, part of a broader and ferocious crackdown to try to crush the most serious challenge to the 40-year Assad dynasty. The U.N. says more than 2,200 people have died in nearly six months of protests.
"All through the night, there was shooting. The gunfire didn't stop," a resident of the city told The Associated Press by phone Wednesday. "I can't tell exactly what is going on because it's dangerous to go out."
He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Omar Idilbi, a spokesman for the Local Coordination Committees, an activist network, said security forces simultaneously stormed several districts in the old part of the city, including the Bab Dreib, Bab Houd and the Bayada neighborhoods.
Six people were confirmed dead in ongoing shooting in those areas, he said.
The London-based Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists across the country, said seven were killed.
Homs, Syria's third largest city, has seen some of the largest anti-regime protests in Syria over the past months, despite repeated crackdowns.
On Tuesday, security forces opened fire from a checkpoint in Rastan, just north of Homs, killing two people, including a 15-year-old boy, activists said. They said five unidentified corpses, including that of a woman, also were found dumped around the city center.
Mobile telephones, land lines and Internet connections in some parts of Homs were cut off. Many people were staying home because of roads blocked by security forces. Others were too scared to leave.
Idilbi said there were reports of army defections in Homs Wednesday, saying fierce fighting took place between factions of soldiers. There have been credible reports of scattered, mostly low-level army defections in the past months, although it is difficult to gauge the extent.
Syria has sealed the country off from foreign journalists and most international observers, insisting that foreigners are meddling. The government's violent crackdown has led to sharp international criticism and sanctions aimed at isolating the regime, including a ban on the import of Syrian oil, a mainstay of the regime.
A planned Wednesday visit by Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby to push for an Arab plan to defuse the crisis was called off at the last minute at the request of the Syrian government, two Arab League officials said. They requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.
Syria's state-run news agency said Syria has asked the Arab League chief to postpone his trip to Damascus for "substantive" reasons. It said Nabil Elaraby has been informed of the reasons and that another date will be set later.
Syrian state media had denied Elaraby had an initiative, and analysts close to the regime said the Arab League chief was coming with "American" demands and conditions.