Aid agencies poised to enter Syria's Homs

AFP, Friday 2 Mar 2012

The UN Security Council calls Syria to allow 'immediate' humanitarian access to protest cities after security forces rejected the entrance of aid agencies into the turbulent city of Homs

A Lebanese Red Cross ambulance carries two injured French journalists who were wounded by the Syrian government forces shelling in Homs province .Beirut, Lebanon, Friday March 2, 2012. (Photo: AP)

 Aid agencies scrambled to get relief convoys into the Syrian city of Homs on Friday after regime forces overran its Baba Amr neighbourhood ending a nearly four-week pounding.

More than 20,000 civilians are believed to have been trapped in the district through the prolonged bombardment with a lone doctor reported to be tending to the scores of casualties in a single makeshift clinic.

As rebel fighters pulled out on Thursday in the face of the regime's overwhelmingly superior firepower, the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) warned of "barbaric" reprisals against the neighbourhood's residents.

The UN Security Council called on Syria to allow "immediate" humanitarian access to protest cities in a statement backed by Russia and China, who had vetoed two resolutions on the conflict last October and again in February.

The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent were preparing to send in a relief convoy to the battered Homs neighbourhood, an ICRC spokesman said.

"The ICRC and the SARC will go on Friday to Baba Amr to deliver humanitarian aid and evacuate the wounded," Damascus spokesman Saleh Dabbakeh told AFP.

The rebels said they had pulled out "tactically" from Baba Amr on Thursday, the second day of an all-out ground assault by the feared Fourth Armoured Division led by President Bashar al-Assad's younger brother Maher.

The storming of the rebel bastion began early Wednesday, following 27 straight days of relentless shelling which has made the neighbourhood an icon of the more than 11-month uprising against Assad's regime.

Activists called for nationwide protests on Friday to demand the arming of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) to give it the firepower to defend itself against regime forces.

"Assad, don't delude yourself, there are a thousand and one Baba Amrs," the activists said on their "Syrian Revolution 2011" Facebook page.

"Soon, we'll be back even stronger," it added, next to a picture of rebel fighters.

The SNC announced on Thursday that it was forming a military bureau to coordinate the flow of arms to the rebels after calls from Gulf Arab states for weapons deliveries ran into opposition from Washington which said it feared Al-Qaeda might exploit the situation.

The FSA, which boasts up to 40,000 fighters, most of them army defectors, says it is not only having to contend with the superior firepower of the regime's forces but also with troops sent by its close ally Iran.

Rebel fighters told an AFP correspondent near Homs that they were regularly intercepting communications in Farsi on wavelengths used by the Syrian army that indicated Iranian units were deployed in the area,.

The correspondent was able to confirm that the language being used was Farsi.

Syrian authorities, meanwhile, said they located the bodies of US journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik in Baba Amr after the rebels retreated, the foreign ministry said. The journalists were killed in a rocket attack last month.

Two French journalists, trapped for days in the bombardment of Baba Amr, were being kept under observation by doctors in neighbouring Lebanon on Friday after being brought out to safety, a diplomatic source told AFP.

A French hospital plane was expected in Beirut later in the day to fly Edith Bouvier and William Daniels home but the diplomatic source said: "Doctors will first have to carry out the necessary tests to see if they are up to the journey."

Bouvier, who suffered multiple fractures in the same February 22 rocket attack on a makeshift media centre that killed Colvin and Ochlik, was in "stable" condition, the source added.

Two short videos released by activists in Homs claimed to show the burials of the pair.

In the videos, a man claiming to be a doctor and dressed in a surgeon's green gown and a white coat opens body bags and shows the faces of the two slain journalists. Their names are inscribed on the respective body bags.

"We have no means to preserve the bodies due to a lack of electricity for the refrigerators," the man says in Arabic.

"Therefore we have decided to bury them here, in a cemetery in Baba Amr."

With pressure mounting on Russia to harden its line against Assad, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in talks with foreign news executives late Thursday rejected the idea that Moscow was taking sides in what he described as an "armed civilian conflict".

"Our aim is not to help one of the sides -- not the Syrian authorities nor the armed opposition -- but to obtain an all round reconciliation," he said in comments published on the government website Friday.

"We have no special relationship with Syria," he added at the meeting at his suburban Moscow residence.

Russia, which has long been Syria's main arms supplier and maintains a naval base at Tartus on Syria's Mediterranean coast, has drawn mounting Western anger for blocking action against the regime at the Security Council.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 21 people were killed in Homs on Thursday, including 17 civilians caught up in the battle for control of Baba Amr.

In total, 39 people, including eight loyal soldiers and seven deserters, were killed in violence across Syria on Thursday, the Britain-based watchdog said.

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron called Friday for the "criminal" Syrian regime to be held to account.

"One day, no matter how long it takes, there will be a day of reckoning for this dreadful regime," Cameron said as he joined European Union leaders on the second day of a two-day summit.

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