By Dominic Evans
BEIRUT, Feb 6 (Reuters) - Syrian forces bombarded Homs on Monday, killing 50 people in a sustained assault on several districts of the city which has become a centre of armed opposition to President Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian National Council opposition group said.
The bombardment came a day after the United States promised harsher sanctions against Damascus in response to Russian and Chinese vetoes of a draft U.N. resolution that would have backed an Arab plan urging Assad to step aside.
"The tally that we have received from various activists in Homs since the shelling started at six this morning is 50, mostly civilians," Catherine al-Talli of the Syrian National Council told Reuters.
The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had the names of 17 people killed so far, adding it expected the death toll to rise. Arab satellite television channels broadcast live footage showing smoke rising from buildings, with explosions echoing in the background.
"This is the most violent bombardment in recent days," said one activist in Syria who was in touch with Homs residents. Another activist said forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad were using multiple rocket launchers in the attack.
Activists said more than 200 people were killed on Friday night when tanks and artillery blasted the Khalidiya neighbourhood of Homs. It was the highest reported death toll in a single day since the uprising against Assad's rule, inspired by uprisings across the Arab world, erupted last March.
Damascus denies firing on houses and says images of dead bodies on the Internet were staged. State media said on Monday "armed terrorist groups" were firing mortars in the city, setting fire to tyres and blowing up empty buildings to give the impression that Homs was under fire from Assad's forces.
Reports from activists and authorities are hard to verify because Syria restricts access for independent media.
The latest assault appeared to be widely targeted, with explosions in Khalidiya, Baba Amro, Bayada and Bab Dreib neighbourhoods, the activists said.
"They want to drive the Free Syrian Army out," said Baba Amro resident Hussein Nader by telephone, referring to the rebel force of army deserters and gunmen who have controlled parts of the city for months.
"Rockets are falling seconds apart on the same target."
Activists said an explosion ripped through an oil pipeline feeding a main refinery in Homs, the second attack on the pipeline in a week, and said the opposition-held town of Zabadani, near the Lebanese border, came under fire on Monday.
Syrian army defectors announced they were organising a new "Higher Revolutionary Council" to supersede the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as the main armed force battling Assad's rule. The new body would be commanded by General Ahmed al-Sheikh, the highest-ranking officer to defect to Turkey from government forces.
SECURITY COUNCIL FAILURE
Monday's assault on Homs follows the failure Western and Arab nations to win U.N. Security Council approval for a resolution which would have condemned Assad's crackdown and supported an Arab League call on him to give up powers.
The Syrian National Council said the Russian and Chinese vetoes of the resolution had given Assad a "licence to kill".
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the veto a "travesty", and it was denounced in strong terms by a succession of Western and Arab countries.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov defended the veto on Monday, saying it prevented the Security Council from taking sides in a civil war. He said Russia was pressing Assad's government to implement reforms more swiftly.
Russia still hopes to play a diplomatic role with Assad, a long-term ally and customer of Moscow's arms exports. Lavrov is due to fly to Damascus on Tuesday. On Monday he met the foreign minister of Bahrain, one of the Gulf states that have led the Arab League in turning against Assad.
French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet kept up criticism of the veto on Monday: "It's a disgrace for the countries that refuse to assume their responsibilities," he said.
"There are political cultures which deserve a kick in the ass," he added on Europe 1 radio. "To accept that a dictator can operate freely is disgraceful for governments that accept it."
Germany said on Monday that Russia and China would now be responsible for continued bloodshed, echoing statements by other Western and Arab countries since Saturday's veto.
The latest offensive by Assad's forces may have been planned for some time, and was signalled in a speech last month when he vowed to strike "terrorists" with an iron fist.
"The regime 10 days ago took a decision to confront the opposition in a different manner," said Ayham Kamel, of the Eurasia Group risk consultancy. "The tactics before were targeted. Now they are set on more direct confrontation with the FSA and opposition activists".
Clinton said the United States would work with other nations to try to tighten "regional and national" sanctions against Assad's government "to dry up the sources of funding and the arms shipments that are keeping the regime's war machine going".
"We will work to expose those who are still funding the regime and sending it weapons that are used against defenseless Syrians, including women and children," she said. "We will work with the friends of a democratic Syria around the world to support the opposition's peaceful political plans for change."
Clinton did not say which nations might band together or precisely what they might do. But it appeared that the United States might seek to help organise a "Friends of Syria" group - proposed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy after the veto - to advance the Arab League initiative given the inability to make headway at the U.N. because of Russian and Chinese opposition.
All 13 other members of the Security Council voted to back the resolution, which would have "fully supported" the Arab League plan for Assad to cede powers to a deputy, withdraw troops from towns and start a transition to democracy.
China has been seen as largely having followed Russia's lead in vetoing the resolution. China's state-run media said Western intervention in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq showed the error of forced regime change.
"Currently, the situation in Syria is extremely complex. Simplistically supporting one side and suppressing the other might seem a helpful way of turning things around, but in fact it would be sowing fresh seeds of disaster," the People's Daily said.
Russia's veto has been interpreted as a signal that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, likely to win a six-year presidential term next month, wants to protect Russian interests from what Moscow sees as U.S. and European plans to impose their will.
In an article in a government newspaper published on Monday, former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov said Washington was seeking to oust Iranian ally Assad as part of a strategy to increase its influence in the Arab world and isolate Tehran.
"Syria has become a victim for the most part because it is close to Iran," wrote Primakov, a Middle East expert who has also been Russia's foreign minister and spy chief.
"The United States and its NATO allies want to exploit the situation that arose in the spring of 2011 in the Arab world with the aim of getting rid of Arab regimes it dislikes." (Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, Nastassia Astrasheuskaya and Alissa de Carbonnel in Moscow, Chris Buckley in Beijing, Arshad Mohammad in Sofia, Annika Breidhardt in Berlin and Leigh Thomas in Paris; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Peter Graff)