Syrian elites looking for way out, officials say

Obama administration officials suggested Friday that Syrian elites are starting to prepare exit plans as violence in the country escalates.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland would not go into detail when asked about the movement of elite Syrians, including those considered to be backers of President Bashar Assad. However, she said, "At this point, let me just assert that we are beginning to see this trend accelerate."

Two U.S. officials also told The Associated Press on Friday that one Assad family member has moved large amounts of money out of the country to avoid U.S. and other sanctions on the country and provide a nest egg for a life in exile. Similarly, a senior member of Assad's national security circle has very recently left the country and appears to have settled abroad, they said.

The movement comes as the violence intensifies and the U.S. and its allies mull options for how to rein in the Assad regime.

The military has stepped up its siege of Homs that has reportedly killed hundreds over the past week. Soldiers who have been bombarding the central city made their first ground move, storming into one of the city's neighborhoods. At the same time, troops and security forces opened fire on anti-regime protesters who streamed out of mosques after Friday prayers nationwide. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 27 civilians were killed.

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And two suicide car combers struck Syrian security compounds in Aleppo on Friday, killing 28 people, Syrian officials said. State media touted the blasts as proof that the regime faces a campaign by terrorists, not a popular uprising against Assad's rule. The opposition, in turn, accused the regime of trying to smear its movement.

Some lawmakers in Washington have suggested the U.S. consider arming the opposition to help them fight against the better-equipped Assad regime.

The administration has pushed back on that idea, though acknowledges that officials are now looking to work outside the United Nations -- after Russia and China vetoed an anti-Assad resolution at the U.N. Security Council over the weekend.

Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, who chairs the Middle East subcommittee on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told the U.S. should consider arming the opposition.

"They are essentially completely defenseless right now, and I think that's inhumane," Chabot said.

He also suggested looking at the possibility of what he described as "humanitarian safe zones" -- or defined areas in Syria where civilians could go with the assurance that they would be safe from the violence. However, that would either require cooperation from the Assad regime itself or enforcement by other countries.

Also Friday, the State Department released declassified satellite imagery depicting what intelligence analysts said is heavy weaponry being deployed for use against civilians in or near the Syrian cities of Az Zabadani, Halbun, Rankus and Homs.

The nine photos, said to be taken on Wednesday, showed what were identified as artillery pieces and a rocket launcher pointing toward civilian areas.

"Our intent here is to obviously expose the ruthlessness or the brutality of this regime and its overwhelming predominant military advantage and the horrible kinds of weaponry that it's deploying against its people," Nuland said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, who closed the embassy and left Damascus on Monday, said film and photos from those cities prove the government is "using mortars and artillery against residential neighborhoods." He said he was puzzled that some were trying to equate the actions of the opposition with that of the security forces.

"It is odd to me that anyone would try to equate the actions of the Syrian army and armed opposition groups since the Syrian government consistently initiates the attacks on civilian areas and it is using its heaviest weapons," he wrote on the embassy's Facebook page.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.