Red Cross make new rescue bid in Syria's Homs

AFP, Saturday 25 Feb 2012

The Red Cross says it is negotiating with Syrian authorities and the opposition to evacuate all persons in need of help in the besieged city

Baba Amro
A wounded man is seen in the Sunni Muslim district of Baba Amro in Homs in this February 8, 2012 file handout photo.(Photo: Reuters)

The Red Cross made a new attempt on Saturday to bring out people trapped in the besieged Syrian city Homs, two of them wounded Western journalists, after a first successful rescue of civilians.

The humanitarian effort came after Arab and Western governments called on Damascus to "immediately cease all violence" to allow access, more than three weeks into a deadly assault on rebel neighbourhoods of Syria's third largest city.

Red Cross and Red Crescent ambulances entered the besieged Homs district of Baba Amr on Friday and evacuated seven Syrians wounded in shelling by regime forces as well as 20 women and children.

But the ambulances did not evacuate two wounded Western journalists and the bodies of two others, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross told AFP.

"Three ambulances entered Baba Amr and they have left. They evacuated so far seven wounded Syrian citizens," Saleh Dabbakeh said.

Negotiations for the entry of further relief convoys were to resume early on Saturday after breaking off for the night.

"Negotiations continue with the Syrian authorities and the opposition in an attempt to evacuate all persons, without exception, who are in need of urgent help," Dabbakeh said.

The evacuation was organised by the ICRC along with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and was the first time rescuers had entered the flashpoint Baba Amr neighbourhood in 21 straight days of deadly bombardment.

The Red Crescent said on its Facebook page that "in addition to the seven wounded, it also evacuated 20 women and children" from Baba Amr.

Eleven ambulances and other vehicles drove into the district, but only three ambulances left with wounded Syrians, although Dabbakeh earlier said the operation would also include the Western journalists.

American reporter Marie Colvin and French photojournalist Remi Ochlik were killed on Wednesday when a rocket hit a makeshift media centre in Baba Amr, a rebel stronghold.

French reporter Edith Bouvier and British photographer Paul Conroy suffered leg wounds in the same attack.

On Thursday Bouvier was seen in a video message appealing for medical evacuation.

"My leg is broken at the level of the femur, along its length and also horizontally. I need to be operated upon as soon as possible," she said in the video shot by anti-regime activists.

Homs has been under siege and bombardment since February 4 with Baba Amr bearing the brunt of the onslaught.

Syria accused rebels in Baba Amr of refusing to hand over Bouvier and the bodies of the two killed Western journalists to rescuers, the official SANA news agency reported.

"The concerned authorities in Homs, moved by humanitarian considerations, sent several local officials and Red Crescent ambulances to evacuate the Western journalists who entered Syria illegally," SANA quoted a foreign ministry official as saying.

"Despite efforts that lasted several hours, armed groups in Baba Amr refused to hand over the wounded woman (Bouvier) and the two bodies, thus endangering the life of the wounded French journalist," the official added.

Diplomatic efforts were stepped up on Friday to evacuate the journalists and the bodies of their two colleagues, with the French, British and Polish working closely together, a Western official said.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, in Tunis for an international "Friends of Syria" meeting on Friday, "solemnly" urged Syria to allow for the evacuation of the wounded journalists.

In Tunis, some 60 governments gathered for the inaugural meeting of the "Friends of Syria" group expressed "strong concern" about the humanitarian situation.

The group cited in particular "the lack of access to basic food, medicine and fuel" as well as "threats and acts of violence to medical staff, patients and facilities".

It called on the Syrian government to "allow free and unimpeded access by the UN and humanitarian agencies to carry out a full assessment of needs".

The group said it would deliver humanitarian supplies immediately if the regime ended the violence.

It also called for a "political solution" to the crisis and recognised the Syrian National Council, the main opposition coalition, as "a legitimate representative of Syrians seeking peaceful democratic change."

Western and most Arab governments have so far rejected the idea of a foreign mission like the operation that helped topple Moamer Kadhafi's regime in Libya.

But Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal backed the idea of arming Syria's opposition.

"I think it's an excellent idea... because they have to protect themselves," he said before a meeting with Clinton.

Clinton said Assad would pay a "heavy cost" for ignoring the will of the international community.

"Faced with determined protesters demanding their rights and their dignity, the regime is creating an appalling humanitarian disaster," she said, announcing $10 million in aid for humanitarian efforts in Syria.

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