Civilians trapped as aid to Baba Amr blocked again

Humanitarian aid reaches parts of the Syrian city of Homs after a four-day standoff but aid workers are denied access to the battered district of Baba Amr.

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BEIRUT // Humanitarian aid reached parts of the Syrian city of Homs yesterday after a four-day standoff but aid workers were again denied access to the battered district of Baba Amr.

Civilians remain trapped there in freezing temperatures in need of food, water and medical care, said Yves Daccord, director general of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

"At the moment we are blocked by the Syrian army and government," he said. "We have to be firm and not give up."

Government troops had barred access to the Red Cross because of what authorities described as security concerns. Negotiations continued yesterday with the military, as ICRC and Syrian Arab Red Crescent workers and ambulances reached two Homs neighbourhoods where many families from Baba Amr had fled.

The situation in Baba Amr is "extremely difficult, the weather conditions are tragic", Mr Daccord said. "It is very cold, there is fighting and people don't have access to food or water, and above all there is a big problem of evacuating the wounded."

Baba Amr, a stronghold of the rebel Free Syrian Army for several months until regime forces drove them out last Thursday, has been the hardest hit neighbourhood in the month-long government bombardment of Homs.

Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Saud Al Faisal, said on Sunday Syrians had the right to take up arms, as calls mount from some US politicians to arm the rebels.

Prince Faisal welcomed international efforts to broker a ceasefire in Syria but said they had "failed to stop the massacres".

"Is there something greater that the right to defend oneself and to defend human rights?" he said in a rare televised news conference.

"The regime is not wanted by the people. The regime is insisting on imposing itself by force on the Syrian people."

Diplomatic efforts appear to be gaining pace, with Kofi Annan, the new joint United Nations-Arab League special envoy and former UN secretary general, due to travel to Damascus on Saturday. Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov is due to meet Arab foreign ministers in Cairo, also on Saturday, to discuss Syria. Russia is a staunch ally of the Al Assad regime and, along with China, has vetoed UN Security Council moves for tougher sanctions.

Activists say dozens of people were killed and homes burnt after government troops regained control of Baba Amr, in retaliation against those suspected of supporting the rebels.

Mulham Al Jundi, an activist in Homs, accused Syrian forces of keeping aid teams out of Baba Amr to hide their activities.

"We have heard explosions in Baba Amr, so it seems that they are destroying some of the houses and important centres there," Mr Al Jundi said.

The ICRC is also still pressing for a daily two-hour humanitarian ceasefire across Syria, an initiative it launched two weeks ago.

"Two hours is not very long but it is essential for the population simply to get access to the medicines they need, in order to rescue the wounded and to help them," Mr Daccord said.

"Homs is not the only place at stake. There are other places in Syria that are problematic."

The regime of Bashar Al Assad has said the assault on Homs was part of the wider efforts to crush the armed terrorists groups they say are behind the escalating violence that threatens to plunge the country into civil war.

Syria's state news agency, Sana, reported yesterday that government authorities began on Sunday to remove the "destruction and debris left by the armed terrorist groups" in Baba Amr and Al Insha'at, another Homs neighbourhood.

Sana said security forces had discovered "caches and dens which the armed terrorist groups resorted to in their operations against the civilian residents".

But opposition supporters say hundreds of civilians have been killed in parts of Homs including Baba Amr by government forces in a brutal assault that began on February 3.

Homs, Syria's third-largest city, is a key battleground in the year-long revolt against Mr Al Assad's rule. The United Nations has said more than 7,500 people have been killed since the uprising began as peaceful demonstrations in March last year.

But, as the struggle has turned increasingly violent and the fighting continues, observers say the fight is far from over.

"We are just at the very beginning of things to come," said Elias Hanna, a Lebanese analyst and retired general. "The FSA cannot really make conventional war. They can hit and run and carry out guerrilla attacks. It's a war of attrition now."

Mr Hanna said the rebel soldiers are fighting a "political war".

"They are fighting for public opinion. They want to stir the pot and shake the ground," he said.

As the world struggles with how to end the crisis, China over the weekend announced its own six-point plan.

The proposal - expected to be discussed in Damascus today when Chinese envoy Li Huaxin is due in the capital - calls for dialogue and an end to violence on both sides.

China and Russia have faced strong criticism for vetoing UN Security Council resolutions that aimed to put more pressure on the Al Assad regime.

"The conflicts between various parties in Syria remain stark and the international community has differing views on how to ease the Syrian crisis as quickly as possible," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said.

"Although conditions are extremely complicated and the situation remains tense, China still maintains that a political solution offers the fundamental escape from the Syrian crisis."

* Additional reporting by the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters