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Syrian troops launch ground assault on restive city

Gianluigi Guercia / AFP - Getty Images

A Free Syria Army member sits guard at a gate during the funeral of a man who was killed by shrapnel in Qusayr, 9 miles from Homs on Tuesday.


Heavy fighting broke out on Wednesday near the main rebel stronghold of Baba Amr in the city of Homs when Syrian troops began a ground assault, opposition sources told Reuters.

"The army is trying to go in with infantry from the direction of al-Bassel football field and fierce confrontations with automatic rifles and heavy machine guns are taking place there," activist Mohammad al-Homsi told the news service from Homs.

He said the military had shelled the area heavily on Tuesday and overnight before the ground attack started.

While shelling continues on Homs, it was confirmed journalist Paul Conroy, of the Sunday Times, who was wounded in the attack that killed reporter Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik, is safely out of Syria.  ITN's Tim Ewart reports.

The reports of a ground assault came as the United Nations put the death toll in the 11-month uprising against authoritarian President Bashar Assad at well over 7,500. Activists reported more than 250 dead in the past two days alone — mostly from government shelling in Homs and Hama province.

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Tunisia's president — the first since the country's own Arab Spring uprising toppled his predecessor — offered the Syrian leader asylum as part of a negotiated peace, an offer Assad will almost surely refuse.

A Syrian diplomat reportedly stormed out of an emergency U.N. meeting amid renewed calls for a cease-fire to deliver humanitarian aid. A top human rights official told The Associated Press a U.N. panel's report concluded that members of the Damascus regime were responsible for "crimes against humanity."

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In shift, China backs aid
In a possible significant change of tact, China backed international efforts to send humanitarian aid to Syria, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said, after Western powers proposed a United Nations resolution authorizing humanitarian aid.

It was not clear whether Yang's remarks mean China will consider the proposed new U.N. Security Council resolution. China is one of the five permanent members of the Council which have the power to veto such resolutions.

"The pressing task now is for all sides to cease violence in the Syrian conflict, and to launch as soon as possible inclusive political dialogue and together deliberate on a reform plan," Yang told Elaraby, who has previously said Beijing's veto lost it diplomatic credit in the Arab world.

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"The international community should create conditions for this, and extend humanitarian aid to Syria," added Yang.

China is trying to win back diplomatic ground after its widely condemned handling of the Syrian crisis.

Western powers said the U.N. Security Council would work on a draft resolution about extending help to stricken parts of Syria, and France urged Russia and China not to veto it, as they have previous drafts.

Yang made the comments in a phone call late on Tuesday with the head of the Arab League, Nabil Elaraby, the official Xinhua news service reported on Wednesday.

The bloodshed in Syria, where government forces have been bombarding neighborhoods held by opposition forces, has turned into a broader test setting Western powers against China and Russia over how the world should respond to civil turmoil.

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Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.