The Associated Press

BEIRUT -- Syrian forces again shelled the central city of Homs yesterday during a fierce offensive to root out rebels as the country's most important ally, Russia, appeared to show growing concern over President Bashar Assad's future.

Russia's Interfax news agency reported that two Russian navy ships are prepared to head to Syria to protect Russian citizens and a naval base there. "We must protect our citizens," Maj. Gen. Vladimir Gradusov was quoted as saying. "We won't abandon the Russians and will evacuate them from the conflict zone, if necessary."

Each ship is capable of carrying 300 marines and a dozen tanks, according to Russian media reports. That would make it the largest known Russian troop deployment to Syria, signaling that Moscow is becoming increasingly uneasy about Syria's slide toward civil war.

Russia has been Syria's strongest ally over the course of the uprising, which began in March 2011 with mostly peaceful protests. A ferocious government crackdown led many to take up arms, and the conflict is now an armed insurgency.

Opposition groups say more than 14,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011, including more than 3,400 security forces.

The renewed shelling in Homs province comes as a regime offensive seeks to drive out rebels by shelling urban areas with tanks and attacking from helicopters. Rebels also have attacked Syrian forces, mostly trying to burn tanks.

The violence comes one day after the head of the UN observers' mission demanded that warring parties allow the evacuation of women, children, elderly and sick people.

"There is renewed shelling and shooting in the city of Homs," said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Explosions also were reported in Homs, the Observatory said.

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