Red Cross rescue fails as Assad's tanks roll back into Homs

President hails victory in referendum on new constitution – but the onslaught continues

The Turkish-Syrian border

Syria's interior ministry announced yesterday that 89.4 per cent
of voters had approved a new government-proposed constitution in a
referendum held on Sunday that would limit the presidency of Bashar
al-Assad and impose multi-party elections. But at the same time as
the results were being announced, opposition activists reported a
fresh onslaught against Homs.

Despite the seemingly impressive result – there has been no independent verification – the government in Damascus conceded that 57.4 per cent of voters had bothered, or had been able, to cast their ballots. The result, if adopted, will allow President Assad to stay in power for another 16 years.

The referendum result was followed last night by news that the Red Cross had entered Homs but had failed to recover a number of injured journalists who have been trapped, short of medical supplies, for nearly a week. They include the Sunday Times photographer Paul Conroy.

Three injured civilians were evacuated from the Baba Amr district in ambulances operated by the organisation's local affiliate, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. But the Red Cross later confirmed that neither the journalists nor the bodies of their dead counterparts, Marie Colvin of The Sunday Times and French photographer Rémi Ochlik, had been removed, adding that the reason was unknown.

Another violent day began in Syria even before the referendum results were announced. According to the London-based activist group Avaaz, troops loyal to the Assad regime had begun a major ground invasion of the Inasha'at neighbourhood of Homs in the early morning, moving in with tanks. Inasha'at is close to the opposition stronghold of Baba Amr and has already seen about 80 per cent of its population flee the fighting. At least 21 people were killed yesterday in Homs, according to activists.

"They are using all kinds of weapons to hit us," said Adnan Maree, 28, a lawyer speaking from Baba Amr. "In my neighbourhood, they are using shock bombs to collapse buildings. We are not seeking [foreign] governments' help. Now we are talking to the people of those countries."

An increasing number of activists are being vocally critical of the West for doing little to intervene in the crisis, which is quickly becoming a civil war. The European Union did move yesterday and imposed new sanctions on Syria, freezing the assets of the country's central bank, restricting trade in gold, diamonds and precious metals, introducing a ban on cargo flights into the EU, and blacklisting seven individuals close to Mr Assad.

As pressure against the regime increased, the Red Cross was able to gain access to the city of Hama. Food and other aid was delivered for 12,000 people. The city, where at least 10,000 people were killed when regime forces massacred members of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s, has been hard hit due to its reputation for dissent.

Yet key international support for the Assad regime remains. Russia's Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, lashed out at countries that were holding discussions to arm the Free Syrian Army, saying he would not support military action in Syria without United Nations support.

China also spoke out, after comments made by the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, that Russia and China's vetoing of the UN Security Council resolutions were "despicable".

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