Syria: Aid crisis as retreat from siege gives army free rein

DEFEATED Syrian rebels left their shattered stronghold in the city of Homs yesterday after a bloody 26-day army siege aimed at crushing a symbol of the year-long revolt against president Bashar al-Assad.

Activists said a few fighters had stayed on in Baba Amr, which has endured weeks of shelling, sniper fire and privation, to cover their comrades’ “tactical withdrawal”. Soon afterward, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said Syrian authorities had finally given it permission to take aid into the district today.

“The Free Syrian Army and all the other fighters have left Baba Amr,” one activist said from Homs. “They pulled out.”

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A pro-government figure proclaimed that troops had “broken the back” of the rebellion and that the fall of Baba Amr heralded impending victory over a “western-backed” insurgency.

A statement in the name of the fighters urged the ICRC and other aid groups to enter Baba Amr to protect and support 4,000 civilians who remained in their shattered homes.

“We warn the regime against any retaliation against civilians and we hold it fully responsible for their safety,” the statement said, adding that rebels had been forced to leave as they lacked supplies and ammunition.

Homs is Syria’s third-largest city with about one million people. Before the revolt began, activists estimated 100,000 lived in Baba Amr. But many have fled in the past year and it is not clear how many remain.

Russia and China yesterday joined other UN Security Council members in expressing disappointment at Syria’s failure to allow UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos to visit and urged she be allowed in immediately.

The ICRC said it had received a “green light” from the Syrian authorities to enter Baba Amr today.

One activist said Syrian soldiers had begun moving into Baba Amr from all directions after most of the fighters left and were hunting the rest. At least 17 rebels were knifed to death after they were chased into nearby fields, he said.

Scattered gunfire could be heard inside Baba Amr and sporadic shelling hit nearby districts, the activists said. The overall level of combat exchanges seemed to have fallen.

The drama in Homs unfolded without any immediate comment from Syrian officials or the state media, but Taleb Ibrahim, a Syrian analyst close to the regime, said the military operation in Homs had “broken the back of the armed groups”.

“It’s the beginning of Syria’s final victory over the Qatari, Saudi, French, American and Zionist conspiracy against Syria,” he told Lebanese television.

There was no word on the fate of wounded French reporter Edith Bouvier and French photographer William Daniels, who had been among a group of journalists trapped in Baba Amr. Two of these, American correspondent Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik, were killed there in a bombardment a week ago. Two others later escaped to Lebanon.

Hundreds of civilians have been killed in Homs in the past month, activists claim. Many of the wounded have received only rudimentary treatment in makeshift field hospitals.

Snow blanketed the city yesterday, where residents lack food, fuel, power, water and telephone links, activists said.

Free Syrian Army commander General Riad al-Asaad said the fight against Assad would go on until he was toppled: “The Free Army has left Baba Amr because of the brutal acts of the regime against civilians,” General Asaad, who is based in Turkey, told al-Jazeera.

A Lebanese official close to Damascus said Assad’s government was determined to regain Homs, which straddles Syria’s main north-south highway.

“They want to take it, whatever happens, without restraint, whatever the cost,” the unnamed official said.

He said defeat for the rebels in Homs would leave the opposition without any major stronghold in Syria, easing the crisis for Assad, who remained confident he could hang on.

Members of the UN Human Rights Council yesterday voted 37 in favour and three against a resolution proposed by Turkey calling on Syria to halt all attacks on civilians and grant unhindered access to aid groups.

Three members of the 47- nation body abstained and four did not vote.