REPORTING FROM BEIRUT -- Syrian President Bashar Assad declared Wednesday that his violence-torn nation will vote on a new draft constitution later this month, but a thick plume of black smoke over the embattled city of Homs highlighted anew the conflict pummeling the country.
The government and the opposition exchanged blame for an attack on a fuel pipeline that caused a massive column of smoke to rise early Wednesday from the city that has become a worldwide symbol of Syria's escalating conflict. The pall of billowy black smoke lingered for hours above Homs, even as gunfire and shelling was reported in some districts.
Assad set Feb. 26 as the date for a nationwide referendum on the draft constitution, state media reported. With turmoil enveloping much of the nation, however, it was unclear how the Syrian government could organize a credible national referendum in 11 days. Fighting has been reported across Syria, and authorities acknowledge having lost control of some territory to armed rebels. Most experts see little prospect for a cease-fire.
The new draft constitution is the centerpiece of what the president calls his reform agenda. With Syria on the verge of civil war, Assad has asserted that he is seeking to put the nation on the course to a more representative government after more 40 years of his family's rule.
Opposition groups demanding Assad's ouster scoff at the proposed constitution and other "reforms" as desperate diversionary moves meant to prolong the life of an autocratic regime. Opponents view the steps as dilatory tactics designed to appease Syria's dwindling list of foreign allies, notably Russia, which has pressured Assad to implement democratic reforms.
Meanwhile, opposition activists said the government had launched new assaults on Homs and other rebel strongholds.
Reuters reported that security forces raided Damascus’ Barzeh district. The neighborhood has been a hotbed of anti-government protests in a capital where many remain loyal to the Assad government.
In Homs, Syria's third-most-populous city, opposition activists and human rights representatives have accused security forces of indiscriminately shelling civilians -- a charge denied by the government. The official news agency says "armed terrorists groups" are bombing residences in Homs in a bid to "spread panic" and disseminate video to the international media purporting to show government shelling.
Elsewhere, diplomats at the United Nations were said to be working on a new resolution condemning the Syrian government. The resolution drawn up by Persian Gulf states Saudi Arabia and Qatar -- steadfast enemies of Assad -- may be voted on by the General Assembly this week, reports indicate. Russia and China have twice vetoed measures assailing Assad in the Security Council, which carries more legal weight than the General Assembly. But there is no veto in the General Assembly.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told French radio Wednesday that the United Nations should consider setting up "humanitarian corridors" to facilitate the delivery of aid inside Syria, Agence France-Presse reported.
It is unclear whether Syria would agree to such humanitarian corridors or dismiss the prospect as unacceptable foreign interference in the nation's internal affairs. Syria has already rejected an Arab League call for a joint Arab-U.N. peacekeeping mission in Syria, labeling it a pretext for foreign intervention.
-- Patrick J. McDonnell
Photo: An attack on a fuel pipeline sends black smoke over the embattled Syrian city of Homs on Wednesday. Credit: EPA