Syrian artillery pounded rebel-held areas of Homs as President Bashar al-Assad’s government announced that voters had overwhelmingly approved a new constitution in a referendum derided as a sham by his critics at home and abroad.
The outside world has proved powerless to halt the killing in Syria, where repression of initially peaceful protests has spawned an armed insurrection by army deserters and others.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent did manage to enter the besieged Baba Amro district of Homs and evacuate three people on Monday, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said. Foreign reporters trapped in the area were not evacuated and the bodies of two journalists killed there had not been recovered, it said.
While foreign powers argued over whether to arm the rebels, the Syrian Interior Ministry on Monday said the reformed constitution, which could keep Assad in power until 2028, had received 89.4 percent approval from more than 8 million voters.
Syrian dissidents and Western leaders dismissed as a farce Sunday’s vote, conducted in the midst of the country’s bloodiest turmoil in decades, although Assad says the new constitution will lead to multi-party elections within three months.
Officials put national voter turnout at close to 60 percent, but diplomats who toured polling stations in Damascus saw only a handful of voters at each location. On the same day, at least 59 people were killed in violence around the country.
Assad says he is fighting foreign-backed “armed terrorist groups” and his main allies – Russia, China and Iran – fiercely oppose any outside intervention intended to add him to the list of Arab autocrats unseated by popular revolts in the past year.
But Qatar joined Saudi Arabia in advocating arming the Syrian rebels, given that Russia and China have twice used their vetoes to block any action by the U.N. Security Council.
“I think we should do whatever is necessary to help them, including giving them weapons to defend themselves,” Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said in Oslo.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe criticised the U.N. Security Council’s “impotence” on Syria, shown by the Russian and Chinese vetoes, and accused the Syrian authorities of “massacres” and “odious crimes.”
In a speech to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Juppe said the time was ripe for referring Syria to the International Criminal Court and warned Assad he would be brought to justice.
“The day will come when the Syrian civilian and military authorities, first among them President Assad himself, must respond before justice for their acts. In the face of such crimes, there can be no impunity,” Juppe told the 47-member Geneva forum, which will hold an emergency debate on Syria on Tuesday.
HOMS BOMBARDED AGAIN
Shells and rockets crashed into Sunni Muslim districts of Homs that have already endured weeks of bombardment as Assad’s forces, led by officers from his minority Alawite sect, try to stamp out an almost year-long revolt against his 11-year rule.
The ICRC has been pursuing talks with the Syrian authorities and opposition forces for days to secure access to besieged neighborhoods such as Baba Amro, where local activists say hundreds of wounded need treatment and thousands of civilians are short of water, food and medical supplies.
ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan said a team from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent team had entered Baba Amro. “They have been able to evacuate three persons, including an aged woman, and a pregnant woman and her husband,” he said.
The trio were believed to be Syrian and did not include four Western journalists trapped in Baba Amro, two of them wounded. A U.S. reporter and a French photographer were killed there on February 22.
International consternation has grown over the turmoil in Syria, but there is little appetite in the West for military action akin to the U.N.-backed NATO campaign in Libya.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Western powers hoped diplomacy could change minds: “We are putting pressure on the Russians first and the Chinese afterwards so that they lift their veto.”
The European Union agreed more sanctions, targeting Syria’s central bank and several cabinet ministers, curbing gold trading with state entities and banning cargo flights from the country.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reiterated Moscow’s opposition to any military intervention in Syria.
“I very much hope the United States and other countries … do not try to set a military scenario in motion in Syria without sanction from the U.N. Security Council,” said Putin.
The new constitution drops a clause making Assad’s Baath party the leader of state and society, allows political pluralism and limits a president to two seven-year terms.
But this restriction is not retrospective, implying that Assad, 46 and already in power since 2000, could serve two further terms after his current one expires in 2014.
The opposition dismisses the reforms on offer, saying that Assad, and his father who ruled for 30 years before him, have long paid only lip service to existing legal obligations.
Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, now the new U.N.-Arab League envoy on Syria, was holding separate talks in Geneva with Juppe and Iran’s foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi on the sidelines of a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting.
Iran is Assad’s closest ally. The main Shi’ite Muslim power, it has religious ties to Assad’s Alawites and is confronting the Sunnis who dominate the Arab League – both the Sunni Islamists who have done well out of the past year’s democratic changes and autocratic, Western-backed leaders in the Gulf and elsewhere.
Additional reporting by Dominic Evans, Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Alexei Anishchuk in Moscow, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Chris Buckley in Beijing, Justyna Pawlak in Brussels, Walter Gibbs in Oslo, Peter Griffiths in London and Leigh Thomas in Paris; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Alastair Macdonald, David Stamp and Andrew Heavens