|A picture taken by mobile phone shows a funeral in Homs, which has become a bastion of anti-government rallies [AFP]
Syrian forces have killed at least 28 people in a massive tank-backed raid on the central city of Homs, rights activists say, while Syria's strongest ally Iran made a surprising call for President Bashar al-Assad to end the violent crackdown.
Wednesday's security operation came after 2,000 people had taken to the streets of the city a day earlier, activists said.
Most of the killings occurred in old neighbourhoods of Homs, situated on the main northern highway 165km from the capital Damascus, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based independent Syrian rights group, said.
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"Military reinforcements including 20 truckloads of soldiers entered the city," it said, opening "intense gunfire in the market and governorate headquarters".
The Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC), which organises the anti-regime protests on the ground, said the death toll continues to increase in Homs, where communications and internet services was cut in many neighbourhoods on Wednesday.
At least two people were killed in raids and attacks on Idlib province's Sarmeen, and one other in the northern city of Hama, the LCC said.
State-run news agency SANA reported that a "terrorist group" kidnapped two Baath party officials in the town of Rastan, near Homs, on Wednesday.
"That may be the reason behind the intense raids in Homs," Al Jazeera's Omar al-Saleh reported from neighbouring Jordan. The Syrian government bans international journalists from entering the country.
Activists and residents said heavy machine-gun fire was heard in the Bab Dreib and Bostan Diwan neighbourhoods of Homs on Tuesday night after the protesters had set out for the area from Bab Tadmor.
The security operations came just hours after Syria requested Nabil Elaraby, the Arab League secretary-general, to delay his visit to Damascus, "due to circumstances beyond our control", SANA said late on Tuesday.
League officials said Elaraby will now visit Syria on Saturday.
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Elaraby had been commissioned by the 22-member bloc to travel on Wednesday with a 13-point document outlining proposals to end the government's bloody crackdown on dissent and push Syria to launch reforms.
According to a copy of the document, he was to propose that Assad hold elections in three years, move towards a pluralistic government and immediately halt the crackdown on anti-government protesters.
The initiative, agreed at an Arab foreign ministers' meeting in Cairo last month, calls for a "clear declaration of principles by Assad specifying commitment to reforms he made in past speeches".
The initiative angered Syria which said it contained "unacceptable and biased language".
'Crimes against humanity'
Separately on Wednesday, the French foreign minister accused Syria of "crimes against humanity" and expressed a desire for Russia's support in a UN condemnation of the crackdown.
The Syrian authorities should be sent "a powerful signal that such actions cannot continue", Alain Juppe said during his talks in Moscow with Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart.
| France has urged Russia to support a UN
condemnation of the crackdown [EPA]
Lavrov did not respond to Juppe's expressions of hope for Russia to change its stance and back UN condemnation of the crackdown.
"We consider that inciting certain forces within the opposition to boycott the invitation to dialogue is a dangerous path and risks a repetition of the Libyan scenario, which neither Russia nor France wants," Lavrov said.
Syria's regime, which has promised to launch a wide range of reforms to appease the protest movement, blames the deadly unrest on foreign-backed "armed terrorist gangs".
Mohammad Jleilati, the Syrian finance minister, acknowledged on Wednesday that the violence has driven down economic growth expectations lower.
"The current circumstances, no doubt, have some negative impact on the economy. We hope to overcome it through reforms," he said on the sidelines of an Arab ministerial meeting in Abu Dhabi when asked about economic growth.
The US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, went on Facebook on Wednesday to denounce the Assad government over its crackdown on protests, which the UN says has left 2,200 people dead since March.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies