By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
AMMAN, Feb 27 (Reuters) - Syrian artillery pummelled rebel-held areas of Homs on Monday before an expected government announcement that a vote - decried as a sham by the opposition and the West - has approved a new constitution proposed by President Bashar al-Assad.
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.
"Intense shelling started on Khalidiya, Ashira, Bayada, Baba Amro and the old city at dawn," opposition activist Mohammed al-Homsi told Reuters from the city on the Damascus-Aleppo highway.
"The army is firing from the main thoroughfares deep into alleyways and side streets. Initial reports indicate at least two people killed in the souk area," he said.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said later at least seven people had been killed by shellfire in Baba Amro. The accounts of opposition activists were echoed by those from other observers, including the Red Cross.
At least 59 civilians and soldiers were killed on Sunday in a violent backdrop to a referendum on a constitution that offers some reforms, but could enable Assad to keep power until 2028.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, which has said conditions in parts of Homs are worsening by the hour, has failed to secure a pause in the fighting to allow the wounded to be evacuated and desperately needed aid to be delivered.
"We are still in negotiations. Since the beginning, the objective has been to go in and evacuate people and bring in assistance. Every hour, every day makes a difference," ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan said in Geneva.
QUEST FOR ACCESS
The relief agency has been pursuing talks with the Syrian authorities and opposition forces for days to secure access to besieged neighbourhoods 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.
Four Western journalists are trapped in Baba Amro, two of them wounded. American reporter Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik were killed there on Feb. 22.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he hoped the journalists could be rescued soon. "It's very tense, but things are starting to move, it seems," he told RTL radio.
The ICRC evacuated 27 people, seven of whom were badly wounded, from Baba Amro on Friday.
The ICRC and Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers distributed aid supplies in Hama, another restive city under army attack, on Monday for the first time in six weeks, the ICRC spokesman said.
The outside world has proved powerless to halt the carnage in Syria, where repression of initially peaceful protests has spawned an armed insurrection by army deserters and others.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin again warned the West against military intervention in Syria, Moscow's long-time ally, but U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made clear there was no enthusiasm in Washington for war. Russia and China have blocked action against Syria by the U.N. Security Council.
There were signs of rhetorical escalation in the international confrontation over Syria - Clinton's description last week of the Russian and Chinese veto as "despicable" earned her a reproach from Beijing's foreign ministry that such language was "totally unacceptable".
A Chinese newspaper, noting the chaos in Iraq after the U.S. occupation, accused Washington of "egotistical super arrogance".
Sarkozy said, however, that 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.
"You can't continue to massacre a people. The next Syrian government is not up to us but things can't continue like this."
The European Union agreed a further round of economic sanctions on Monday, targeting the Syrian central bank and some ministers, curbing gold trading and banning cargo flights.
Assad's government, which is also backed by Iran, says it is fighting foreign-backed "armed terrorist groups".
While the West dismisses talk of a Libya-style NATO role to support Assad's opponents, Gulf Arab states have pushed for a more forceful stance. Saudi Arabia said on Friday it would back the idea of arming rebels - a proposal likely to alarm Moscow.
"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, for whom a strong profile in world affairs may play well in Sunday's presidential election, which he is expected to win comfortably.
Clinton told BBC television there was "every possibility" of civil war in Syria. "Outside intervention would not prevent that. It would probably expedite it," she said.
The Syrian government was due to announce the result of the vote on the constitution, which would drop an article making Assad's Baath party the leader of state and society, allow political pluralism and enact a presidential limit of two seven-year terms. A parliamentary poll would be held in three months.
But the presidential term limit is not retrospective, implying that Assad, 46, already in power since 2000, could serve two further terms after his current one expires in 2014.
Diplomats who toured dozens of polling stations in Damascus reported seeing only a handful of voters at each location.
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.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the referendum "an important step on the path of reforms" and criticised as "one-sided" Friday's "Friends of Syria" gathering in Tunis at which Western and Arab powers met Syrian opposition leaders.
All sides must end violence, he said: "If it is demanded of the government stop operations to fight militants and the militants have no responsibilities, that is unrealistic."
Opponents of Assad have struggled for unity since the uprising began in March. On Sunday, at least 20 secular and Islamist members of the Syrian National Council broke away on Sunday to form the Syrian Patriotic Group.
How to vote
Vote-by-mail ballot request deadline: Varies by state
For the Nov 3 election: States are making it easier for citizens to vote absentee by mail this year due to the coronavirus. Each state has its own rules for mail-in absentee voting. Visit your state election office website to find out if you can vote by mail.Get more information
In-person early voting dates: Varies by state
Sometimes circumstances make it hard or impossible for you to vote on Election Day. But your state may let you vote during a designated early voting period. You don't need an excuse to vote early. Visit your state election office website to find out whether they offer early voting.My Election Office
General Election: Nov 3, 2020
Polling hours on Election Day: Varies by state/localityMy Polling Place