Syrian forces overran the Baba Amr district of powderkeg Homs on Thursday after rebels retreated, potentially marking a turning point in President Bashar al-Assad’s bid to crush an increasingly armed uprising.
As rebel fighters pulled back, the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) warned of a “massacre” in the rebel neighbourhood by Syrian forces, while relief agencies said they would urgently try to get there to deliver aid and evacuate the wounded.
Later on Thursday, the UN Security Council called on Syria to allow “immediate” humanitarian access to protest cities in a statement also supported by Russia and China, who had previously vetoed two resolutions.
The SNC, citing “confusion” on the ground in Syria, said in Paris it would provide leadership to an outgunned and fragmented force and control the flow of arms to fighters.
The rebels said they had pulled out “tactically” from Baba Amr Thursday, the second day of an all-out ground assault by the feared Fourth Armoured Division, led by a younger brother of President Bashar al-Assad, Maher.
The storming of the rebel bastion began early on Wednesday and continued into Thursday, following 27 straight days of relentless shelling of Homs by regime forces.
Rebels “have pulled out tactically in order to protect the remaining civilians,” said Colonel Riyadh al-Asaad, the leader of the Free Syrian Army, which is made up mostly of deserters.
The FSA was formed mid-2011 in response to a brutal crackdown by Assad’s forces on anti-regime protesters, and now boasts up to 40,000 armed fighters, although the numbers are impossible to verify.
A Syrian security official said in Damascus that the army was in total command of the Homs neighbourhood, which had become the symbol of resistance to the regime.
State television aired footage it said was filmed inside Baba Amr, including interviews with people it said were residents angry with the rebels.
The SNC urged the international community to act to prevent to protect residents, charging that the Fourth Armoured Brigade was conducting “barbaric operations against civilians.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 21 people were killed in Homs on Thursday, including 17 civilians caught up in the battle for control of Baba Amr.
Global campaigning organisation, Avaaz, said the 17 were “beheaded or partially beheaded” in the farming area on the outskirts of Baba Amr.
In total, 39 people, including eight loyal soldiers and seven deserters, were killed in violence across Syria on Thursday, the Observatory said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent were preparing to urgently reach the conflict zone, an ICRC spokesman said.
“The ICRC and the SARC will go on Friday to Baba Amr to deliver humanitarian aid and evacuate the wounded,” Damascus spokesman Saleh Dabbakeh told AFP.
French journalists Edith Bouvier, who sustained serious leg wounds in Syria, and William Daniels, trapped for days in bombarded Homs, escaped Syria for Lebanon, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said late Thursday.
“I have just spoken with Edith Bouvier, who is naturally exhausted, having suffered hugely but she knows she is free and that she will soon be taken care of,” said Sarkozy.
“I want to thank all those who contributed to this happy ending after a week of efforts to evacuate them involving the International Red Cross and the Syrian Red Cross, which didn’t succeed,” Sarkozy said.
The French president said the pair could be brought back to France “tonight in a hospital plane belonging to the French republic”, if doctors gave their go-ahead.
Bouvier has multiple fractures from a February 22 rocket attack on a makeshift media centre in Baba Amr. US veteran reporter Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik were killed in Homs on February 22.
Two videos released by activists in Homs meanwhile claim to show the burials of Colvin and Ochlik, both killed in a rocket attack.
In the two short videos, a man claiming to be a doctor and dressed in surgeon’s green gown and a white coat opens body bags and shows the faces of the two slain journalists. Their names are inscribed on the respective body bags.
“We have no means to preserve the bodies due to a lack of electricity for the refrigerators,” the man says in Arabic.
“Therefore we have decided to bury them here, in a cemetery in Baba Amr.”
It was not possible to verify the veracity of the videos, which are dated on Monday.
Photographer Daniels was also on assignment for Le Figaro, and was trapped alongside Spaniard Javier Espinosa of El Mundo daily.
Another journalist wounded in the attack, British photographer Paul Conroy, was evacuated to Lebanon on Tuesday.
On the political front, the SNC said its military bureau, announced on Wednesday, would coordinate the flow of weapons to the rebels following mounting calls from Gulf Arab states for arms to be delivered despite US fears that Al-Qaeda may exploit any further militarisation of the crisis.
“The SNC will be this link between those who want to help and the revolutionaries,” its leader Burhan Ghalioun told reporters in Paris.
“It is out of the question that arms go into Syria in confusion,” he added.
The all-out assault on Homs’s defiant neighbourhood came as international envoy Kofi Annan said he hopes to go to Damascus with a clear message that the “violence must stop.”
Britain announced that it was following the United States in closing its embassy and pulling out its remaining diplomats in response to the “deterioration of the security situation in Damascus.”
UN political chief B Lynn Pascoe told the Security Council on Tuesday that “well over 7,500” people have been killed since Assad’s forces began a crackdown on anti-regime protests that erupted in March last year.
Europe’s leaders meanwhile pledged to tighten the noose on Syria with fresh sanctions failing an end to violence and rights abuses by the regime.
A draft EU summit statement said the 27-nation bloc “confirms its commitment to further increasing the pressure on the Syrian regime as long as the violence and human rights abuse continues”.
EU ministers last week slapped fresh sanctions on Syria, including a freeze on its central bank assets, the 12th round of EU sanctions against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Measures also included an assets freeze and travel ban on seven Syrian ministers, a ban on trade in gold and precious metals and a ban on cargo flights to the EU operated by Syrians.
The EU has already blacklisted almost 150 Syrian entities and people.