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Syria defies calls to end violence, kills 2 dozen in shelling of Homs

Shells slammed into the central Syrian city of Homs on Sunday, killing more than two dozen people, activists said, as Syria's government defied cease-fire demands and international efforts to boost the rebels.

Activists said heavy machine gun fire and artillery pounded the districts of Khaldiyeh, Bayada and Safsafa in the battered city, despite world demands on the Syrian regime to end violence that has killed thousands of people in the past year.

In the latest steps, participants at the "Friends of the Syrian People" meeting in Istanbul said Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries are creating a multimillion-dollar fund to pay members of the rebel Free Syrian Army and soldiers who defect from the regime.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the United States is providing communications equipment to help opposition members in Syria organize, remain in contact with the outside world and evade regime attacks.

The Syrian government blasted the meeting, calling it the "Enemies of Syria" gathering. Syria's uprising began in March 2011 with peaceful protests calling for political reforms. Dissent spread as President Basha Assad's forces deployed tanks, snipers and armed thugs to try to quash it, and many in the opposition have taken up arms to defend themselves and attack government troops.

The United Nations says more than 9,000 people have been killed. Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan is pushing to end the violence with a plan that calls on the government to immediately pull its forces out of cities and towns and abide by a two-hour halt in fighting every day to allow humanitarian access and medical evacuations, while arranging a permanent cease-fire.

Syria has said it agrees to the plan but has rejected what it actually requires Damascus to do.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman said the government would not withdraw its force from towns and cities before life returns to normal there.

Leaders of Syria's scattered opposition have also rejected dialogue with the Assad regime, accusing it of stalling for time and saying it has killed too many people to be considered serious about peace.

Activists said violence continued inside the country Sunday and criticized the Istanbul meeting as a waste of time.

"The conference has to arm the opposition, the Free Army. That is the best thing they can do because we're tired of promises and initiatives. We're tired of it," said activist Hadi al-Yousef in the southern town of Dael, which has come under fierce attack in the past days.