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Syrian forces mass outside rebel stronghold as Russia plans to submit aid proposal

syrian tank

Feb. 15, 2012: In this photo taken on a government-organized tour for the media, Syrian citizens pass by a Syrian government army tank, in one of several suburbs of Damascus that saw heavy fighting between troops and defectors before Assad's forces retook the areas in late January, in Harasta suburb, Damascus, Syria. (AP)

An opposition group says seven people have been killed in heavy shelling of a district in central Syria a day after the army sent reinforcements ahead of a possible ground assault.

It was not immediately clear whether the intense shelling of the Baba Amr neighborhood in the city of Homs was the start of a widely expected offensive to crush rebels in the area.

Activists said the heavy shelling of the Baba Amr, Khaldiyeh and Karm el-Zeytoun lasted more than two hours.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on activists on the ground, said seven people including a child were killed in Baba Amr.

Phone lines have been cut with the city, making it difficult to get firsthand accounts from Homs residents.

Syrian tanks and troops had massed outside the resistance stronghold of Homs Monday for the possible ground assault, which one activist warned could unleash a new round of fierce and bloody urban combat even as the Red Cross tried to broker a cease-fire to allow emergency aid in.

A flood of military reinforcements has been a prelude to previous offensives by President Bashar Assad's regime, which has tried to use its overwhelming firepower to crush an opposition that has been bolstered by defecting soldiers and hardened by 11 months of street battles.

"The human loss is going to be huge if they retake Baba Amr," said Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said Russia will put forward a proposal at the U.N. Security Council in the coming days regarding humanitarian aid to Syria, the Itar-Tass news agency reported.

Churkin was quoted by the agency as telling Vesti 24 television on Monday that the council "could undertake concrete steps aimed at solving humanitarian issues, relying, among other things, on the fact that Damascus allowed the Red Cross to bring humanitarian aid to some regions."

Churkin gave no details about the proposal, his spokesman Anton Uspensky told The Associated Press. Russia and China have vetoed two Security Council resolutions backing Arab League plans aimed at ending the conflict and condemning the government crackdown.

The central city of Homs -- and in particular the opposition district known as Baba Amr -- has become a critical ground for both sides.

The opposition has lionized it as "Syria's Misrata" after the Libyan city where rebels fought off a brutal government siege. Assad's regime wants desperately to erase the embarrassing defiance in Syria's third-largest city after weeks of shelling, including a barrage of mortars that killed up to 200 people earlier this month. At least nine people were killed in shelling Monday, activists said.

Another massive death toll would only bring further international isolation on Assad from Western and Arab leaders.

"The massacre in Syria goes on," said U.S. Sen. John McCain during a visit to Cairo, where he urged Washington and its allies to find way to help arm and equip Syrian rebels.

McCain, a senior member of the Senate Armed Service Committee, said he did not support direct U.S. weapons supplies to Syrian opposition forces, but has suggested the Arab League or others could help bolster the fighting power of the anti-Assad groups. The U.S., he said, could assist with equipment such as medical supplies or global positioning devices.

"It is time we gave them the wherewithal to fight back and stop the slaughter," he said.

Assad's fall also would be a potentially devastating blow for his close ally Iran, which counts on Syria as its most reliable Arab ally and a pathway for aid to Tehran's patron Hezbollah in Lebanon. But McCain urged for "like-minded" Western and Arab nations also to guard against attempts by al-Qaida or other extremists to exploit a leadership vacuum if the regime crumbles.

"For us to sit back and do nothing while people are being slaughtered ... is an affront to everything America stands for and believes in," said McCain, suggesting that the Republicans could seek to make Syria a central campaign issue in this year's U.S. presidential election.

But U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, on a visit to Mexico on Monday, dodged a question about whether the U.S. could accept Arab countries or others arming the Syrian rebels.

We are all working for the planned friends of Syria meeting at the end of this week, which we think will give us a chance to come together and chart a way forward," she said.

She said the meeting in Tunisia "will demonstrate the Assad regime is increasingly isolated and that the brave Syrian people need our support and solidarity."

But she said that should be expressed through humanitarian help and encouragement to the Syrian opposition to promise that everyone they will be represented in a new Syria.

In Cairo, Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby suggested at a news conference that Russia and China -- two countries that recently supported Damascus by vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Assad's regime -- may be shifting their positions.

"There are some indications, especially from China and to some degree from Russia that there may be a change in their stance," he said, without elaborating.

Syria-based activist Mustafa Osso told The Associated Press that Assad's military should face strong resistance as residents plan to fight until "the last person." He added that Homs is facing "savage shelling that does not differentiate between military or civilians targets."

The Baba Amr neighborhood on Homs' southwest edge has become the centerpiece of the city's opposition. Hundreds of army defectors are thought to be taking shelter there, clashing with troops in hit-and-run attacks each day.

Amateur videos posted online showed what activists said were shells falling into Baba Amr. Black smoke billowed from residential areas. Phone lines and Internet connections have been cut with the city, making it difficult to get firsthand accounts from Homs residents.

In Geneva, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross said the group has been in talks with Syrian authorities and opposition groups to negotiate a cease-fire in some of the most violence-torn areas.

"We are currently discussing several possibilities with all those concerned, and it includes a cessation of fighting in the most affected areas," the spokeswoman, Carla Haddad, told the AP.

She said the talks weren't aimed at resolving any of the entrenched political differences.

"The idea is to be able to facilitate swift access to people in need," Haddad said.

Clashes between military rebels and Syrian forces are growing more frequent and the defectors have managed to take control of small pieces of territory in the north as well as parts of Homs province, which is Syria's largest stretching from the border with Lebanon in the west to Iraq and Jordan in the east. Increasingly, Syria appears to be careening toward an all-out civil war.

Activists believe Assad may be trying to subdue Homs -- an important stronghold for anti-Assad groups -- before a planned referendum Sunday on a new constitution. The charter would allow a bigger role for political opposition to challenge Assad's Baath Party, which has controlled Syria since a 1963 coup.

But the leaders of the uprising have dismissed the referendum as an attempt at superficial reforms that do nothing to crack the regime's hold on power.

"We have called for a boycott of the referendum which cannot be held while parts of Syria are a war zone," said Omar Idilbi, a Beirut-based member of the opposition Syrian National Council.

The U.N. last gave a death toll for the conflict in January, saying 5,400 had been killed in 2011 alone. But hundreds more have been killed since, according to activist groups. The group Local Coordination Committees says more than 7,300 have been killed since March of last year. There is no way to independently verify the numbers, however, as Syria bans almost all foreign journalists and human rights organizations.

In the western Hama province, troops backed by armored personnel carriers and military buses stormed several villages, conducting raids and arrests. A 32-year-old man was killed by gunfire from a security checkpoint in the area, activists said.