BEIRUT (AP) — Government troops shelled rebel-held areas in central Syria on Friday, killing at least eight people, activists said, as the United States, Europe and Arab nations met in Tunisia to seek ways to end President Bashar Assad's crackdown on an 11-month uprising against his rule.
As government troops continued to pound rebel-held neighborhoods in the besieged city of Homs, thousands of people in dozens of towns staged anti-regime protests under the slogan: "We will revolt for your sake, Baba Amr," referring to the Homs neighborhood that has become the center of the Syrian revolt. Activists said at least 36 people were killed across the country.
More than 70 countries are taking part in Friday's "Friends of Syria" meeting, which is expected to press Assad to agree to a cease-fire and allow for humanitarian aid to reach the areas that have been hardest-hit by the regime's security forces. The nations will also call for the United Nations to begin planning a Syria peacekeeping mission once the regime agrees to a cease-fire, a senior diplomat said.
American, European and Arab officials have said the group would likely impose harsher sanctions if Assad rejects the cease-fire, and predicted the regime's opponents would grow stronger if Assad remained in power.
Diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis gained pace Thursday with the appointment of former U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan as the joint United Nations-Arab League envoy on the Syrian crisis.
Annan said in a statement Friday that he would try to "help bring an end to the violence and human rights abuses, and promote a peaceful solution" in Syria. He expressed hope that the Syrian government and opposition groups will cooperate with him in his efforts.
The Tunisia meeting is the latest international effort to end the crisis, which began when protesters inspired by uprisings sweeping across the Arab world took the streets in some of Syria's impoverished provinces nearly a year ago to call for political change.
Assad's security forces have responded with a fierce crackdown, and blame the violence on Islamic extremists and armed gangs. In recent months, the situation has grown increasingly militarized as opposition forces, boosted by army defectors, have increasingly taken up arms against the regime.
The U.N. estimated in January that 5,400 people were killed in the conflict in 2011. Hundreds more have died since. Syrian activists say the death toll is more than 7,300. Overall figures cannot be independently confirmed because Syria has prevented most media from operating inside the country.
Also Friday, U.N.-appointed investigators in Geneva said they had compiled a list of Syrian officials accused of crimes against humanity in the crackdown. The list reaches as high as Assad.
While the U.S., EU and Arab League have ratcheted up the pressure on Assad, Russia and China have opposed foreign intervention or sanctions against Syria.
Alexei Pushkov, a Russian lawmaker, said Friday that in his recent meeting with Assad the Syrian president sounded confident and showed no sign he would he step aside. Pushkov warned that arming the Syrian opposition would fuel civil war.
"Assad doesn't look like a person ready to leave, because, among other things, there is no reason for him to do that as he is being supported by broad layers of the population," Pushkov said, according to the RIA-Novosti news agency.
Syrians demonstrating Friday condemned the positions of Russia, China and Iran — countries whose governments have stood by the Assad regime.
"Iranian and Russian bullets are tearing apart our bodies," read a large banner unfurled in the town of Tibet el-Imam just north of the central city of Hama.
But in a move highlighting Assad's deepening isolation, the Hamas prime minister of Gaza voiced support for Syrian protesters seeking to overthrow his regime. It was the first time that a senior Hamas figure has publicly backed the uprising and rebuked the Syrian regime.
"We commend the brave Syrian people that are moving toward democracy and reform," Ismail Haniyeh told congregants after Friday prayers in Egypt's Al-Azhar Mosque, the country's pre-eminent Islamic institution.
Assad has long hosted and supported leaders of the Hamas movement, which rules Gaza, but the group has significantly reduced the presence of its exiled leaders in Syria in the wake of protests.
Four people died Friday in the renewed shelling of the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs, activists said, the latest of hundreds killed there in recent weeks. The neighborhood has been under siege and intense shelling for three weeks.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said four others were killed in Homs' rebel-held neighborhood of Khaldiyeh.
Amateur videos posted on the Internet by activists showed black smoke rising from residential areas of Baba Amr and debris littering its slum-like apartment blocks. Parts of Homs, Syria's third-largest city, have been under a fierce government attack for nearly three weeks.
The Observatory said troops were also attempting to storm Rastan, a besieged rebel-held town just north of Homs. He said the town was being shelled and reported heavy clashes between troops and army defectors who destroyed two armored personnel carriers.
The Observatory said 36 civilians were killed throughout Syria on Friday, including a father and his three sons in the central village of Kfar Alton in the province of Hama that came under intense government troops shelling.
The Local Coordination Committees activist network said 53 people were killed by security forces across Syria Friday, but the number could not be immediately confirmed by others.