SYRIA: Rebels ‘surviving’ renewed bid to ‘clean out’ Baba Amr

SYRIAN rebel fighters appeared to have survived an initial ground assault on the beleaguered Homs suburb of Baba Amr yesterday, after regime officials earlier vowed the district would be “cleaned”.

After more than three weeks of relentless shelling, Syrian government troops from the 4th Armoured Division commanded by Maher al-Assad, president Bashar al-Assad’s younger brother, had sought to storm the devastated neighbourhood, where western journalists are believed to be among 100,000 people trapped by the assault.

Civilians cowered terrified, crammed into basements, or whatever shelter they could find. Outside, street-fighting raged as men from the Free Syrian Army – calling themselves the Farouq Brigade – battled to repel the attack. The fighters, many of whom are former soldiers, armed with Kalashnikovs and home-made grenades, employed guerrilla tactics, using their knowledge of the streets to stave off the onslaught.

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“Until now the regime has not entered Baba Amr, they are shelling the area heavily. They tried to enter earlier today, and the FSA won the first battle,” said Omar Shakir, a Homs activist who recently escaped to Lebanon and who had managed to speak with residents there.

Yesterday morning, a Syrian government official, speaking anonymously to journalists in Beirut, vowed Baba Amr would be “cleaned” within hours.

“The division of Maher al-Assad, Bashar’s brother has come to support the Syrian regime. The Free Syrian Army have until now stopped them from entering Homs,” said ‘Mulham’ an activist speaking from its old city.

Baba Amr was much of an information void yesterday. Activists who have been uploading videos and giving interviews to foreign journalists by Skype for months could not be reached. Panic had grown among residents as two Syrian army checkpoints in nearby Al Hamidiyya district had melted away overnight – seemingly to avoid being hit by their own artillery.

Edith Bouvier of Le Figaro, her photographer William Daniels, and Spanish journalist Javier Espinosa were believed to have been left trapped inside the city after being separated from the rescue party that smuggled Sunday Times photographer Paul Conroy into Lebanon this week. Last night, Espinosa was understood to have reached Lebanon.

The regime’s 4th Armoured Division has a reputation for ruthlessness, burnished during the past year of revolt and forged in history. Drawn from the Alawite sect to which the Assads belong, it is hated by many in the Sunni majority who recall the role its predecessor units played in massacring thousands of Sunnis at Hama in 1982 on the orders of Assad’s father Hafez.

Troops also bombarded the besieged town of Rastan, 13 miles north of Homs, and several people were killed when a shell hit a house, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Activists said troops and pro-Assad militiamen had also attacked the town of Helfaya, an opposition stronghold near Hama, detaining people and raiding and burning houses.

YouTube footage posted by activists showed crowds in the nearby town of Kernaz protesting in solidarity with Helfaya. Demonstrators danced, waved pre-Baathist Syrian flags and chanted: “God support your oppressed subjects.” Troops and militia also launched a security sweep in the eastern Damascus suburb of Harasta, where phone services have been cut off for the past month, activists said.

The United Nations says Assad’s forces have killed more than 7,500 civilians since the revolt began last March.

UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said Syria has not approved her requests to visit. A senior western diplomat spoke of efforts to “finish off” the rebels in Homs and said Syria had decided to deny Amos entry “despite Russian efforts to get her access”.