Tuesday, February 21, 2012

BEIRUT—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.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian tanks and troops massed Monday outside the resistance stronghold of Homs for a possible ground assault that 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.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin inspected one of Russia's new stealth fighter jets on Monday and said Russia needs a stronger military to protect it against foreign attempts to stoke conflict around its borders.

Less than two weeks before a presidential election in which he hopes for a resounding win, Putin visited Komsomolsk-on-Amur, a snow-swept city in Russia's Far East where military and civilian plane maker Sukhoi is a big employer.

He prefaced his trip with a newspaper article intended to burnish his image as a strong leader, saying Russia would spend 23 trillion rubles ($768 billion) over a decade to modernize the former Cold War superpower's armed forces.

"New regional and local wars are being sparked before our very eyes," Putin wrote in the article published on the front page of Russia's official gazette, Rossiiskaya Gazeta.

"There are attempts to provoke such conflicts in the immediate vicinity of the borders of Russia and our allies," he wrote ahead of the March 4 election which he is expected to win.

SANA, Yemen — In an unprecedented move for an Arab state where popular dissent worked to unseat a dictator, Yemenis went to polling stations on Tuesday to vote out President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The election comes after a year of antigovernment protests and conflict that broke the government of this already impoverished nation. In reality, it is meant to be more symbolic than democratic: the only candidate is Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi.

“We want change. We want a new president,” said a shopkeeper, Yahya al-Qadhi, just after he voted. “It’s fine that only Abed Rabbo is on the ballot. If there was more than one candidate, then they would start killing each other and we are sick of the killing.”

Supporters of the president are voting because the transition was commissioned by Mr. Saleh himself, while the opposition wants to formally force Mr. Saleh out of office. The election may be the only thing the two sides have agreed on after a year of bitter rivalry.

Russia, China and Iran showed support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Monday, days before an international meeting likely to pile more pressure on him to step down in the face of an increasingly bloody uprising.

Assad met a senior Russian politician in Damascus, who reiterated Moscow's support for his self-styled reform program and spoke out against any foreign intervention in the conflict, Russian and Syrian news agencies reported.

China accused western countries of stirring up civil war in Syria, and two Iranian warships docked at a Syrian naval base, underscoring rising international tensions over the near year-long crisis.

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