BEIRUT — Syrian forces hammered restive neighborhoods in the city of Homs for hours with mortars and artillery before dawn Saturday, sending terrified residents fleeing into basements and killing more than 200 people in the bloodiest episode of the nearly 11-month-old uprising, activists said.
Despite international outrage over the assault, Russia and China vetoed a draft U.N. resolution condemning President Bashar Assad's crackdown on the uprising and backing Arab calls for Assad to step aside. Western and Arab countries had lobbied until the last minute for Russian backing, but then decided to push for a vote, challenging Moscow to block it.
The Syrian government denied any devastating bombardment took place, saying the high death tolls were part of a "hysterical campaign" of incitement by its opponents to pressure U.N. action.
The veto in the Council underlined what appears to be Assad's strategy of relying on Russian protection abroad, even as global condemnation stacked up over the bloodshed in Homs, Syria's third largest city.
"The Assad regime must come to an end," President Barack Obama said in a statement Saturday, calling on the Security Council to "stand against the Assad regime's relentless brutality."
Tunisia decided to expel Syria's ambassador in response to the "bloody massacre" and no longer recognizes the Assad regime, the president's office said in a statement. Angry Syrians stormed their embassies in Berlin, London, Athens, Cairo and Kuwait, clashing with guards and police and — in Cairo — setting fire to part of the embassy.
In Homs, thousands attended a funeral ceremony in a city park for about 60 of the victims of the bombardment. Photos posted online by activists showed lines of dozens of coffins and bodies wrapped in white shrouds amid a crowd of mourners.
In the hardest hit district, Khaldiyeh, residents checked on relatives after a night spent in hiding and cleaned streets of shattered glass, debris and bloodstains. Buildings had gaping holes, the facades of some had collapsed inward, and as many as 30 buildings were left uninhabitable by the extent of the damage, said local activist Majd Amer.
Thousands protested across Syria in solidarity in Homs. "Homs, your blood will not go in vain," read a banner held by a protester a Damascus suburb.
At least 21 people were killed in violence outside Homs on Saturday, including 12 shot when security forces opened fire on a funeral procession for victims of a shooting in the Damascus suburb of Daraya a day earlier, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
There were signs that the bombardment in Homs was in response to moves by army defectors to solidify control in several neighborhoods.
Residents reported that defectors set up new checkpoints in several areas, and two Homs activists said defectors attacked a military checkpoint in the Khaldiyeh district Thursday night, capturing 17 soldiers. The activists spoke on condition of anonymity to protect themselves from retaliation.
If defector activity was the spark, the assault signals a new willingness by the regime to unleash more devastating force against the dissidents. The defectors, part of a force called the Free Syrian Army, have grown increasingly bold in attacks on the military and attempts to take overt control in pro-opposition areas.
Khaldiyeh, a mainly Sunni neighborhood in the mixed city, took the brunt of the assault. Residents described a devastating night of ceaseless shelling that sent them fleeing to lower floors and basements of buildings.
"We were sitting at home and the mortars just started slamming into buildings around us," Mohammad, a Khaldiyeh resident, said by telephone. "There was nothing that prompted it, not even protests ... people are terrified today."
Mohammad, who like other Syrians in Homs declined to be further identified, said the shelling started shortly before midnight and lasted until early Saturday. He said residents were inspecting the damage Saturday, looking for relatives. "It's a catastrophe, no other way to describe it," he said.
Online video by activists showed chaotic scenes in a makeshift clinic set up in what appeared to be a Khaldiyeh mosque, the room filled with wounded men with gashes and broken limbs being bandaged as well as several dead bodies. In another video, fire ravaged a house that had been shelled, as people poured water on the blaze.
The videos could not be independently verified.
Residents said most shelling came from a military installation west of Khaldiyeh and Alawite-dominated neighborhoods to the east. Syria's Alawite minority, which belongs to an offshoot of Shiite Islam, forms the backbone of Assad's regime and the military leadership.
Homs has been one of the biggest centers of anti-regime protests since March and has seen increasingly large numbers of army defectors. It has been hit by near daily regime raids and fighting — and has seen bloody bouts of tit-for-tat killings between its Alawite and Sunni communities.
The government denied the Homs bombardment and said corpses shown in videos were people who had been kidnapped by "terrorists" now portrayed as victims of alleged shelling.
The Syrian Observatory said the death toll in Homs was at least 217, counting victims whose names it had collected. About 140 of the deaths were in Khaldiyeh, it said.
The Syrian National Council, one of the main opposition groups, put the toll at more than 220.
"This is the worst attack of the uprising, since the uprising began in March until now," said Rami Abdul-Rahman, the head of the Observatory, which tracks violence through contacts on the ground.
The reports could not be independently confirmed.
Ammar, a resident of the Bab Tadmur district of Homs, said the death toll exceeded 330.
"A few more nights like this one and Homs will be erased from the map," said the distraught man by telephone. "We are being massacred, what is the Security Council still waiting for?"
Syria's uprising began with peaceful protests around the country. But in the face of the regime's withering crackdown, the opposition has increasingly taken up arms. Military and security forces have responded with progressively greater force.
The past weeks have suggested the regime is moving to more powerful assaults. Last week, the military launched a heavy offensive in the suburbs east of Damascus after dissidents showed greater control there. Three days of fighting saw some of the highest daily tolls of the uprising, until the regime appeared to silence the dissidents for now.
The U.N. said in December that that more than 5,400 people have been killed since March, but it has been unable to update its count for weeks. Hundreds more have been killed since that tally was announced.
Saturday's veto was the second time Russia and China have blocked U.N. condemnation of Assad's crackdown. Russia opposed Saturday's resolution, concerned that it would open the way for military action against Syria and that any call for Assad to step aside would wreck chances for a negotiated solution.
The rejected draft would have backed an Arab peace plan by which Assad would hand over his powers to his vice president and allow creation of a unity government. The draft drops an earlier more direct demand that Assad do so.
Negotiations went to the last minute to try to overcome the Russian objections. But heading into the session, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said changes were still needed.
But patience among the U.S. and European and Arab countries had run out, and they pressed for a vote.
"Those who block the adoption of such a resolution are taking a grave historical responsibility," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said.
Associated Press writers Elizabeth A. Kennedy in Beirut, Anita Snow at the United Nations, Aya Batrawy in Cairo and Bouazza ben Bouazza in Tunis contributed to this report.