Red Cross aid convoy approaches Homs

 

A Red Cross aid convoy prepared to enter the shattered Baba Amro district of Homs today after a Syrian official declared the area "cleansed" and the opposition spoke of a massacre by President Bashar al-Assad's forces.

The residential district became a symbol of resistance to Assad after government troops surrounded it with tanks and artillery and shelled it intensively for weeks, killing and wounding civilians cowering in its ruined buildings.

Rebels withdrew yesterday in a key moment in the year-old uprising. An official at Syria's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates said the army had "cleansed Baba Amro from the foreign-backed armed groups of terrorists."

Activists said Syria's army had begun hunting down and killing insurgents who had stayed to cover their comrades' retreat, although the reports could not be verified. They said 10 young men were shot dead today.

In Geneva, the United Nations human rights body reminded Assad of his obligations under international law. "We are alarmed at reports starting to come out of the Baba Amro district of Homs after it was taken over by government forces yesterday," spokesman Rupert Colville said.

Rami Abdelrahman, from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said Syrian troops had entered Ain al-Baida, near the Turkish border and 100-150 rebels had fled the area.

One pro-government figure said troops had "broken the back" of the uprising and the rebel withdrawal heralded impending victory over what he termed a Western-backed insurgency.

In Beirut, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said Syrian authorities had agreed that the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the ICRC could enter Baba Amro to evacuate casualties and to take food and medicine to civilians trapped by the fighting and siege.

"We have positive indications from the Syrian authorities to go in. We are ready to enter Baba Amro to evacuate first the sick and wounded and to take food and medical supplies," Samar al-Kadi, ICRC spokeswoman in Beirut, told Reuters.

The ICRC later said a convoy had reached Homs and was preparing to enter Baba Amro. The rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) said on Thursday it was leaving the district - normally home to 100,000 residents. Only a few thousand people remain.

Conditions in the heavily bombarded district are hellish. TV footage showed heavy snow and freezing weather, with residents lacking electricity or fuel for heating. There is also a shortage of food and medical supplies.

Barely a building has escaped damage from artillery shelling and many are pock-marked with bullet holes.

'Deep disappointment'

In a rare show of unity with Western powers, Russia and China joined other Security Council members at the United Nations in expressing "deep disappointment" at Syria's failure to allow the UN humanitarian aid chief Valerie Amos to visit the country, and urged that she be allowed in immediately.

It was the first statement on Syria from the council, which has been deadlocked on the issue, since August last year. But it was not immediately clear how far Moscow and Beijing - hitherto Assad supporters - had shifted their position.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin appeared to distance himself further from Assad in an interview with a group of European editors, saying he had no special relationship with the president.

"It is up to the Syrians to decide who should run their country ... We need to make sure they stop killing each other," The Times newspaper quoted Putin as saying today.

France announced it would shut its Syrian embassy and was ready to step up support of the rebels if the UN Security Council cleared the way for such a move. "Dictators will all, one day, have to pay for their actions," President Nicolas Sarkozy said.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said Syria's rulers would be held to account. "We need to start collecting the evidence now so that one day, no matter how long it takes, there will be a day of reckoning for this dreadful regime," Cameron told reporters at a summit of EU leaders in Brussels.

The European Union was planning to call for increased pressure on Assad, including sanctions, according to a draft of its conclusions. It was also preparing to urge the Arab League to convene a meeting of the Syrian National Council, which it said it recognised as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

The EU has over the past months been adding names to a list of people it sanctions with travel bans and asset freezes.

As news of the opposition pull-out from Baba Amro spread, video footage released on the internet appeared to show the bodies of American journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik being buried in Homs, where they were killed in shelling eight days ago.

French journalists Edith Bouvier, who was wounded in the same bombardment, and William Daniels flew to Paris on Friday from Lebanon, Sarkozy said, the last of a handful of reporters trapped in the city.

Armed rebels and defecting soldiers have been spearheading the revolt against Assad that began with largely peaceful protests inspired by the Arab Spring, but escalated after a government crackdown.

As the drama unfolded in Homs, a Lebanese official close to Damascus said a 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 survive.

President Assad, a London-trained eye doctor, is increasingly isolated internationally in his struggle to crush the armed insurrection.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul told Reuters on Thursday that Russia and Iran would soon realise they had little choice but to join international diplomatic efforts for Assad's removal.

The United Nations says Syrian security forces have killed more than 7,500 civilians since the revolt began last March. Syria's government said in December that "armed terrorists" had killed more than 2,000 soldiers and police during the unrest.

Reuters

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Hosting Support Agent

£17100 - £20900 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the North West's leading...

Recruitment Genius: Experienced Health & Safety Support Tutor

£19000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Legal Assistant

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Collections Agent

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company was established in...

Day In a Page

Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

That's a bit rich

The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

Britain's Atlantis

Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

David Starkey's assessment
Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

'An enormous privilege and adventure'

Oliver Sacks writing about his life
'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

Orthorexia nervosa

How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

Set a pest to catch a pest

Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests