Syrian forces attack Homs on eve of Lavrov visit

BEIRUT - A Syrian military assault on Homs killed dozens of people on the eve of a visit to Damascus by Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov aimed at pressing President Bashar al-Assad to end an 11-month uprising by implementing swift reform.

The violence Monday came as world powers scrambled for a diplomatic strategy after the defeat of a U.N. Security Council resolution backing an Arab League call for Assad to give up power and start a political transition.

A member of the main opposition Syrian National Council said Assad's forces killed 50 people in a sustained bombardment of Homs, a center of armed opposition to his rule, two days after activists reported 200 people were killed in shelling.

Syrian authorities, who have denied firing on houses, said security forces killed "tens of terrorists" in Homs Monday morning. An Interior Ministry statement said six members of the security forces were killed in the clashes.

The United States shut its embassy in Damascus and said all staff had left the country due to worsening security.

Belgium and Britain recalled their ambassadors from Syria, and London said it would seek further European Union sanctions against the country.

U.S. President Barack Obama said that, however hard Western countries are prepared to lean on Assad diplomatically, they still had no intention of using force to topple him, as they did against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya last year.

"I think it is very important for us to try to resolve this without recourse to outside military intervention. And I think that's possible," he told NBC's Today show.

Russia fought back against blistering criticism from the West for blocking the U.N. resolution Saturday. Foreign Minister Lavrov said condemnations of Moscow's veto had verged on "hysteria."

He was heading to Syria Tuesday because Moscow sought "the swiftest stabilization of the situation in Syria on the basis of the swiftest implementation of democratic reforms whose time has come," Lavrov's ministry said.

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