BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian regime showed a new determination Wednesday to crush its opponents, vowing to "cleanse" a rebel-held district in the besieged central city of Homs after nearly four weeks of shelling.
Government troops massed outside the embattled neighborhood of Baba Amr, raising fears among activists of an imminent ground invasion that could endanger thousands of residents, as well as two trapped Western journalists, who have been under heavy bombardment.
A Spanish journalist who had been stuck in the area escaped Wednesday to Lebanon, the second foreign reporter to do so since a government rocket attack last week killed two of his colleagues and wounded two others.
The fate of the foreign journalists has drawn attention to Homs, which has emerged as a key battleground between government forces and those seeking to end the regime of authoritarian President Bashar Assad.
The government's increasingly bloody attempts to put down the 11-month uprising have fueled mounting international criticism.
The Obama administration summoned Syria's senior envoy in the U.S., Zuheir Jabbour, over the Homs offensive.
The State Department's top diplomat for the Mideast, Jeffrey Feltman, expressed his "outrage over the monthlong campaign of brutality and indiscriminate shelling" in Homs, according to a statement.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told members of Congress on Tuesday that Assad could be considered a war criminal.
U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said Syria had not yet agreed to allow her to into the country. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, called that refusal "shameful."
"Rather than meeting the needs of its people, the barbaric Syrian government is preparing its final assault on the city of Homs," Rice said in a statement. "Meanwhile, food shortages are reported to be so severe that people, especially children, will soon start dying of hunger."
The U.N. and the Arab League have appointed former Secretary-General Kofi Annan as their joint envoy to Syria, but Damascus says it needs more information on his mission's goals before it will let him in.
The U.N. estimated that more than 7,500 people have been killed since the anti-Assad struggle started in March 2011, when protesters inspired by successful Arab Spring uprisings against dictators in Tunisia and Egypt took to the streets in Syria. As Assad's forces used deadly force to stop the unrest, protests spread and some Syrians took up arms against the regime.
Activists put the total death toll at more than 8,000, most of them civilians.
China urged world powers to provide humanitarian assistance to Syria, as Beijing tries to bolster diplomacy while continuing to oppose any armed intervention in the conflict.
Heightening fears of greater carnage, a Syrian official said the government was planning a major offensive against the Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr.
"Baba Amr will be under control complete control in the coming hours and we'll cleanse all the armed elements from the area," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity under government protocols.
Activists reported heavy shelling throughout Homs, raising concern that the government was preparing a ground invasion to take back the city.
Since the first week of February, government forces have showered parts of Homs with daily barrages of mortars, tank shells and rockets. The violence has caused many to flee the city of 1 million people, Syria's third-largest, while those who remain are trapped inside.
Hundreds have been killed in recent weeks, activists said, including residents who foraged for food outside their homes.
It was virtually impossible to reach anyone inside Baba Amr on Wednesday. Activists elsewhere in Homs said their colleagues based in the neighborhood had quit communicating with the outside because of fears the army would trace their satellite signals to target them.
"Today has been very scary," said activist Mulham al-Jundi, speaking from another part of Homs via Skype. "They are still killing in Baba Amr and the water and electricity have been cut to most of the city."
He and his colleague ran their computer off of a small generator to communicate with the outside, he said. Armed rebels from a loose-knit group called the Free Syrian Army had been fighting with pro-government troops on the outskirts of Homs to try to keep them from entering, but he said their inferior arms weren't much of a deterrent.
"The Free Army has been trying to defend the area with almost no ammunition for 15 days. What can a Kalashhikov do against a tank and a mortar? How can they resist?"
Many civilians had fled the city's rebel-held areas, he said, "but now those who are in are stuck. There's no way out."
Homs is about 12 miles (19 kilometers) northeast of the frontier with Lebanon, and cross-border smuggling has been key to the city's survival and to arming the rebels because of the links between Sunnis in northern Lebanon and the Sunni majority in Homs.
The city also has a minority population of Alawite Muslims, the sect to which Assad and most of his security forces belong.
The ordeal of the foreign journalists, who sneaked into Syria illegally to report on the uprising, has drawn attention to Homs' plight.
Spanish photographer Javier Espinosa crossed safely into Lebanon, according to his domestic partner, Monica Garcia Prieto. His employer, El Mundo, confirmed it.
Two French journalists, Edith Bouvier and William Daniels, remain in Baba Amr, Prieto said.
Bouvier and British photographer Paul Conroy were wounded last week in a government rocket attack on a makeshift media center that killed American-born journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik. Conroy was smuggled into Lebanon on Tuesday after fleeing the neighborhood Sunday night.
The activist group Avaaz said Syrians it supported got both men out of Baba Amr and into Lebanon. It said Espinosa left the neighborhood with Conroy, but the group came under shelling and Espinosa stopped to tend to the wounded while Conroy went on. Espinosa later met another group of Syrians who took him to Lebanon, Avaaz said.
Thirteen Syrians were killed while aiding the escape, the group said.
The Local Coordination Committees, a human rights monitoring group, said Bouvier refused to leave Baba Amr without the Syrians who were wounded by shelling while attempting to help her escape, and she has called on the French ambassador for help. The French Foreign Ministry demanded that the Syrian regime observe a cease-fire so Bouvier and Daniels could be evacuated.
In Damascus, Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said the government wants to evacuate the journalists but is being prevented by gunmen.
Makdissi added, however, that by entering Syria illegally, the reporters had "raised skepticism about the nature of their mission and the reality of their work."
The Syrian government blames the uprising on Islamist extremists and armed thugs. It has barred most media from operating in the country.
The LCC and another monitoring group, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, reported government shelling and arrest campaigns across the country Wednesday. The Observatory said at least 17 had been killed, while the LCC put the death toll at 23.
The LCC reported that the town of Sermin in the northwestern province of Idlib was subjected to shelling in recent days. An Associated Press team in the town saw cars run over by army tanks as well as damaged homes and shops.
Residents held a funeral Tuesday for a man they said was beheaded when troops stormed the town Sunday.
"They are killing people who have nothing to do with all this, who have nothing to do with the situation," said Sheik Moussa, a Sermin resident.
Syria's state-run news agency said three gunmen were killed and others were wounded as they tried to cross from Lebanon into Homs province. The agency said a Syrian soldier was wounded in the clash.
Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this story.