BEIRUT - The United States accused the Syrian government of using “new horrific tactics’’ Monday, as United Nations observers reported Syrian helicopters were firing on rebellious areas, and concerns mounted that civilians were trapped in besieged cities.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland expressed concern about reports the regime “may be organizing another massacre’’ in Latakia Province, where UN monitors have been impeded.
Speaking to reporters in Washington, Nuland said Syrian forces should remember Bosnia in the 1990s and how the international community can find out who is responsible for abuses. “People will be held accountable,’’ she warned.
Activists reported that security forces killed about 50 people across Syria on Monday, with violence in Homs, Idlib, and Latakia provinces. More than 20 army personnel also were killed, they said. The accounts could not be independently verified.
According to activists’ accounts, Syrian troops with helicopter gunships attacked Rastan, a rebel-held town in Homs Province. Rastan has resisted repeated government offensives for months, but the use of helicopters is a relatively new tactic in the uprising.
International envoy Kofi Annan said Monday he was gravely concerned about the escalation of fighting in Syria, citing the shelling of opposition areas in central Homs Province and reports of helicopter, mortar, and tank attacks near the Mediterranean coast.
Annan said in a statement that he is particularly worried about artillery shelling in Homs and Talbiseh amid reports of helicopters, mortars, and tanks being used in the town of Haffa, in Latakia Province on the Mediterranean coast.
“There are indications that a large number of civilians are trapped in these towns,’’ his statement said.
Violence in Syria has spiked in recent weeks, as both sides ignore an internationally brokered cease-fire that was supposed to go into effect April 12 but never took hold.
Videos posted online showed fireballs exploding in the air as shells pounded residential buildings in Homs on Monday.
“What we are seeing right now are fierce clashes as the Syrian army tries to take back positions held by the rebels,’’ said Rami Abdul-Rahman of the Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which uses a network of sources on the ground. “There are many deaths in the rebel ranks,’’ he said.
Another mass killing of civilians would mean a fifth massacre in less than three weeks. President Bashar Assad’s isolation has deepened since 108 civilians were killed in the western village of Houla on May 25 and at least 49 were killed June 6 in Qubeir near Homs. Assad’s government has denied responsibility for any atrocities.
Nuland declined to say if Washington or anyone else in the international community might intervene to stop the attacks on civilians. “We are calling this out now in the hope that we can stop what could be a potential massacre,’’ she said.
There are no prospects for a NATO intervention like the one that helped topple Libya’s Moammar Khadafy, in part because Russia has promised to veto such a plan.
The Observatory also said a bomb targeted a security force in the northern city of Idlib, killing seven soldiers and a civilian. There was no confirmation from state media.
In Damascus, the state-run news agency SANA said authorities foiled an attempt to blow up a car rigged with 1,500 pounds of explosives in the Damascus suburb of Chebaa Monday. A demolition team dismantled it, SANA said.
Syrian activists say 13,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011. The government restricts journalists from moving freely, making it nearly impossible to independently verify accounts from either side.
The bloodshed has led to broad condemnation of the regime, although Russia, Iran, and China have stood by Assad. Russia and China have vetoed two Security Council resolutions that threatened sanctions against Syria. Russia has refused to support any move that could lead to foreign intervention in Syria, Moscow’s last significant ally in the Middle East.
The United States and its allies have shown little appetite for getting involved in another Arab nation in turmoil. There also is a real concern of a spillover effect for other countries in the region.