After a merciless, month-long bombing campaign that has ravaged Homs, Bashar al-Assad's regime stood in the way of the Red Cross last night as it attempted to bring aid to the now fallen and devastated rebel district of Baba Amr.
The humanitarian organisation was blocked from moving in as reports emerged that dozens of people had been killed in execution-style murders following the retreat of rebel fighters from the area. Meanwhile, Mr Assad's forces opened another deadly front against anti-government protesters yesterday, bombing Rastan, a rebel-held town 12 miles north of Homs.
David Cameron condemned what he described as the "medieval butchery" afoot in Syria, where the uprising against Mr Assad's rule has turned increasingly bloody.
On Thursday, the Syrian regime granted permission to the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) for its volunteers to enter Baba Amr. But ICRC chief Jakob Kellenberger said yesterday that, in a reversal, aid workers from his organisation had been denied access to the district, describing the action as "unacceptable". Chillingly, one activist who spoke to The Independent by phone said the Syrian government was worried about what the Red Cross might find when it entered the neighbourhood, which has been pulverised by four weeks of intense shelling and rocket fire. "The regime doesn't want the world to see what has happened," said the man, who was speaking from a district adjacent to Baba Amr and who said his name was Abu Abdu.
Over in Rastan, at least 12 people were blown up yesterday by a rocket attack. According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the rocket crashed into a rally as hundreds of civilians turned out for a demonstration following midday Friday prayers. A film uploaded on to YouTube apparently revealed the gruesome aftermath of the explosion, with severed heads lying on the ground and walls splattered in blood and body parts.
The rally had been one of a series of nationwide demonstrations from activists calling for help in arming the Free Syrian Army, whose troops were forced to retreat from Baba Amr this week. Yesterday, there were reports that dozens of civilians in the district had been massacred by advancing regime gunmen, who took control of the neighbourhood after rebel troops abandoned the area on Thursday.
The United Nations High Commission for Human Rights said it had received reports of a "particularly grisly set of summary executions" involving 17 people. The killings, which are yet to be confirmed, reportedly happened after government troops and loyalist militias entered the shell-blitzed district.
According to the Homs activist who spoke to The Independent by phone yesterday, the killings were carried out by shabiha, the pro-Assad paramilitaries recruited from the President's Alawite sect. "They were slaughtered like sheep," said Abu Abdu, who lives in the Al-Hakura neighbourhood next to Baba Amr and claimed to have spoken to a witness who saw it happen. "He told me it happened on Thursday night. There were shabiha. He saw them cutting the throats of the civilians. This man who saw it happen is now with a doctor. He is shaking and doesn't know where he is."
Another activist from Homs repeated the allegation that 17 people had been executed on Thursday night. The activist, who said his name was Abu Emad, said five of those killed were from the same family. He claimed that the murders had taken place near a graveyard in the area, close to a supermarket.
With the violence in Syria continuing unabated, Prime Minister David Cameron indicated that President Assad could face an international tribunal. "We should do more to make sure that those who are responsible for atrocities are held to account," Mr Cameron said at a summit of EU leaders yesterday, "We need to document their crimes. It needs to be written down. We need to make sure that the evidence is there."
Mr Cameron's call was supported by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose government yesterday followed the UK in announcing the closure of its embassy in Syria.
The Syrian army's success in throttling the life out of Baba Amr – a district which for months one of the main strongholds of defected soldiers battling against the regime – has led to fears that the year-long uprising against President Assad could be in danger of fizzling out.
Taleb Ibrahim, a Syria analyst with close links to Damascus, told the Associated Press news agency that this week's advances by the Government marked "the beginning of Syria's final victory over the Qatari, Saudi, French, American and Zionist conspiracy". But yesterday there were more demonstrations across Syria. According to the Local Co-ordination Committees, a network of activists that works to publicise the uprising, security forces attacked protesters rallying in Damascus while drivers in the surrounding suburbs were stopped at numerous checkpoints.
"The only way for people to protect themselves is through the Free Syrian Army," said Radwan Ziadeh, a leading member of the opposition Syrian National Council. "The international community has left Syrians to die alone. There is no other way forward now apart from arming the opposition."