Last updated: 29 February, 2012

Syria forces shell Homs amid assault fears

Syrian ground troops launched an assault on a rebel-held district of Homs Wednesday after shelling it for 26 straight days, activists said, as pressure grew for humanitarian access to besieged protest cities.

A security source told AFP in Damascus that Baba Amr “is under control,” after activists had earlier said troops of the elite Fourth Armoured Division had taken up positions around the holdout district of Syria’s third-largest city.

“The army has started combing the area building by building and house by house. Now the troops are searching every basement and tunnel for arms and terrorists,” the security source said.

“There remain only few pockets” of resistance.

But a human rights watchdog and activists in the central city denied that troops had moved into Baba Amr, insisting that clashes were taking place only on its outskirts.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights insisted that rebel forces were “preventing an attempt to storm” Baba Amr.

Homs-based activist Hadi Abdullah reported clashes and heavy shelling of Baba Amr but insisted that ground troops had not entered the neighbourhood.

“Regime forces did not enter Baba Amr until this moment. They are surrounding the district, while clashes are concentrated in the neighbourhoods of Inshaat and Malaab,” he told AFP by telephone.

Abdullah said activists were “evacuating families because shelling has been targeting places that were considered safe in the past.”

The arrival of the Fourth Armoured Division, which is under the command of President Bashar al-Assad’s brother, Maher, has signalled a final assault, he added.

Another Homs-based activist, who goes by the pseudonym Abu Atta al-Homsi, dismissed in a telephone call with AFP the claims of advances by regime forces into Baba Amr as mere “rumours aimed at spreading fear.”

He insisted that the deserters would “defend to the last man.”

Rebel commanders said access to Homs was now completely blocked after regular troops blew up an underground aqueduct that had been the last viable route for smuggling of desperately needed supplies.

Efforts to bring out Le Figaro journalist Edith Bouvier, who is trapped inside Baba Amr with multiple fractures, intensified after her British colleague Paul Conroy was successfully smuggled out to Lebanon on Monday night.

“We expect the government in Damascus to put all the conditions in place for a safe and rapid evacuation, in particular an immediate ceasefire in Baba Amr,” said French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero.

Thirteen Syrian activists were killed trying to help Bouvier and Conroy and to bring in aid to Baba Amr, international activist group Avaaz said.

Syrian foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said on Wednesday that his government had tried “in vain” to help evacuate the journalists, insisting that Damascus was committed to its “humanitarian obligations” and accusing rebels and journalists of not cooperating.

Another journalist who had been trapped in Homs, Spanish correspondent Javier Espinosa, has arrived in Lebanon from Syria, his employer the El Mundo newspaper said Wednesday.

Espinosa is “in perfect health,” the newspaper wrote on its website.

UN political chief B Lynn Pascoe told the Security Council this week that “well over 7,500” people have been killed Syria since Assad’s forces began cracking down on anti-regime protests that erupted in March last year.

Another 15 civilians were killed in various parts of the country on Wednesday, including eight in Homs, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Eight members of the Syrian forces also died on Wednesday in clashes with rebel fighters and attacks in the Aleppo region in the north and Daraa in the south, the Britain-based monitoring group said.

Meanwhile, the opposition Syrian National Council announced setting up a military office that would supervise the “armed resistance” in a measure that provides political cover to the rebels and might help ease Western fears over Al-Qaeda taking advantage of arming opponents in the future.

UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said Syria did not respond to her request for a visa to assess the growing crisis.

At the United Nations, diplomats said Washington had begun work on a new draft Security Council resolution demanding humanitarian access to besieged cities, such as Homs.

“This resolution will concentrate on humanitarian access to the cities, but it will indicate that the government is the cause of the crisis,” one Security Council diplomat said.

Western nations hope that focusing on the humanitarian crisis will persuade Russia and China not to use their veto powers as permanent members of the 15-member council as they did against previous Western-drafted resolutions last October and again in early February.

The French foreign ministry spokesman said the new text calls for a halt to violence and “immediate, unhindered access for humanitarian aid to the most threatened sites and the most vulnerable populations.”