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DAMASCUS, Feb 22: Two Western journalists were among 26 people killed on Wednesday as Syrian forces pounded the city of Homs, activists said, while calls mounted for a truce to allow in humanitarian aid.

The latest barrage came a day after Syrian security forces killed at least 68 defenceless people across the country, adding to an overall toll of 7,636 since anti-regime protests erupted last March, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The toll includes 5,542 civilians, the head of the Britain-based monitoring group, Rami Abdel Rahman, told AFP.

At least 24 civilians were killed in shelling of the Baba Amr district of Homs on Wednesday, the 19th straight day that the city in central Syria was being pounded, the Observatory said.

American journalist Marie Colvin, who reported for London’s Sunday Times, and French freelance photojournalist Remi Ochlik were killed in the bombing of Baba Amr, French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand said.

France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy said the deaths of the journalists showed that “this regime must go”. From inside the quarter, activist Omar Shaker told AFP that two were killed and three others wounded as a shell crashed into a makeshift media centre set up by anti-regime militants.

French newspaper Le Figaro said one of its reporters, Edith Bouvier, was wounded in the legs, and Sunday Times Tycoon owner Rupert Murdoch said the paper’s photojournalist Paul Conroy was injured.

The area remained the target of random Syrian forces shelling, blocking attempts to remove the bodies, Mr Shaker said.

French television reporter Gilles Jacquier was killed in Homs last month when a shell exploded amid a group of journalists covering protests in the city on a visit organised by the authorities.

Syrian citizen journalist Rami al-Sayyed, who provided live footage on the Internet from Baba Amr, was killed late Tuesday when a rocket hit a car in which he was travelling, activist Hadi Abdullah told AFP.

A call by the International Committee of the Red Cross for a two-hour truce daily to deliver aid to afflicted areas has gained support from the United Nations, as well as from the United States and Russia.

Tuesday’s call came a day after the ICRC said it was in talks with Syrian authorities and rebels to halt the violence.

Meanwhile, Syria’s main opposition group demanded the international community to create “safe havens” in the country and called on Russia to force the regime to allow access for humanitarian convoys.

At a news conference in Paris, the Syrian National Council said it would attend a summit of the countries known as the “Friends of Syria” and ask for safe zones to protect civilians and allow the opposition to organise.

Syrian authorities, meanwhile, blamed economic sanctions imposed by the West and Arab states, for the deterioration in health care service in the country.

The rebel Free Syrian Army head, Colonel Riyadh al-Asaad, has welcomed the humanitarian truce call but voiced doubts that the “criminal” regime would abide by a ceasefire arrangement.

And the UN under secretary general for humanitarian affairs, Valerie Amos, called on Syria to allow aid groups unimpeded access to the country.

“This is a major human rights crisis that is now moving into significant humanitarian consequences,” Amos said.

In Washington, White House press secretary Jay Carney said: “We support calls for ceasefires to allow for the provision of humanitarian supplies to Syrians who desperately need it.”

“Reprehensible actions taken by the Assad regime have led us to a situation where basic supplies, humanitarian supplies are very scarce.”—AFP