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Middle East

China raises pressure on Syria but Red Cross still denied access

Assad regime faces growing calls for an end to the crisis as civilians continue to suffer

Red Cross teams remained locked out of the devastated Baba Amr district in Homs last night, as China, while still opposing military intervention in the country, piled pressure on the Syrian regime to end the crisis.

With volunteers from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) still denied access to Baba Amr three days after the Syrian government supposedly gave them a green light, the organisation's volunteers began handing out aid and medical supplies to civilians living around the neighbourhood. "We are very concerned about the people in Baba Amr," the ICRC's Damascus-based spokesman Saleh Dabbakeh said yesterday, after activists claimed the government's reticence stemmed from its fears that volunteers will discover evidence of war crimes.

Hundreds of civilians from the neighbourhood have reportedly been killed over the past month, as the Syrian government launched a day-by-day barrage of rockets and shells to root out rebel fighters who had seized control of the neighbourhood. In one of the coldest winters in recent memory, families were struggling to survive a constant hail of artillery fire without electricity, water or communications.

Journalists have also been caught in the violence, and last night the bodies of the veteran Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin and the French photographer Remi Ochlik, both of whom were killed in the bombardment of Baba Amr last month, arrived in Paris.

The American-born Ms Colvin's body was expected to be flown to the United States from France either today or tomorrow. When the Syrian military eventually seized control of Baba Amr on Thursday, activists claimed that soldiers killed dozens of civilians in a series of execution-style murders. The government of Bashar al-Assad has said its campaign was being waged against "terrorists" and armed groups.

Yesterday, there was a fresh diplomatic push to end the violence from China, a country that has so far steadfastly refused to endorse Western efforts to find a solution through the United Nations Security Council. A post on China's Foreign Ministry website called for an immediate end to the killings in Syria and suggested renewed efforts to deliver humanitarian aid and kick-start negotiations through the UN and Arab League. But the proposal also rejected outright any military intervention or attempts to topple the government. "We oppose anyone interfering in Syria's internal affairs under the pretext of 'humanitarian' issues," the post said. "China does not approve of armed interference or pushing for 'regime change' in Syria."

Beyond Homs there were further eruptions of violence across Syria yesterday. In Rastan, a town 12 miles north of Baba Amr which has become a bolthole for defected soldiers, heavy shelling was reported from government positions, while gun battles raged in the northern town of Jebel al-Zawiya.

Baathist artillery gunners also launched shells into the border town of Qusair, south of Homs, in an attack that sent hundreds of civilians fleeing towards neighbouring Lebanon.

"The people said they were sat at home and suddenly the shelling started and they fled," Afif Diab told the Reuters news agency.

"They said it was tank shelling and gunfire."