Middle East

Syria crisis: Red Cross still seeking to enter Baba Amr

Syrian state TV picture of Homs (2 March 2012)
Activists have said those remaining in Baba Amr face a humanitarian catastrophe

The Red Cross is to try for a fourth consecutive day to get relief aid into the shattered Baba Amr district of the central Syrian city of Homs.

After a siege and bombardment lasting nearly a month, security forces moved into the area on Thursday following the withdrawal of armed rebels.

The government has since denied the Red Cross access, citing security concerns.

There are reports of violence across the country, with activists saying at least 60 people were killed on Sunday.

The Local Co-ordination Committees, a group that organises and documents protests, said 17 people died in Homs, including six who were allegedly summarily executed in a field on the edge of Baba Amr.

Another 18 people were killed in the nearby city of Hama on Sunday, 12 in the suburbs of Damascus and five in the northern province of Idlib, it added.

'Considerable' needs

While the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and its Syrian Red Crescent partners have been waiting to enter Baba Amr, Syrian state television has been showing footage of a clean-up operation under way.

Workers were filmed starting to clear away the rubble left by weeks of heavy bombardment, which activists say left hundreds dead. State TV reporters said the area had been "sanitised" of "armed terrorist groups".

There is little information about the fate of up to 20,000 residents thought to have been in Baba Amr when the siege began on 4 February, but activists have said those remaining face a humanitarian catastrophe.

Electricity, water and communications have been cut off, and in recent days temperatures have plummeted and snow has fallen. Food supplies are said to be dangerously low, and many people are too scared to venture out.

With their convoys unable to enter Baba Amr since Friday, the Red Cross and Red Crescent have focused on distributing food, baby milk, blankets and hygiene products in neighbouring districts and villages where many people have sought refuge, including Inshaat, Tawzi and Abil.

The ICRC said the needs in the three areas were "considerable".

"We were actually able to start distributing assistance yesterday to people who have been displaced from Babr Amr so we were able to get in to a small village about 4km outside Homs," the organisation's spokesman in the UK, Sean Maguire, told the BBC.

"What we're being told is that the security situation prevents us going in, that it's not safe for us to go in, and that there are mines and booby traps. And we have no way of verifying that," he added.

Activists have also accused security forces and pro-government militia of executing and torturing men and boys over the age of 14 in Baba Amr since Thursday. The claims could not be substantiated.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) meanwhile said that between 1,000 and 2,000 Syrians from Homs were trying to reach the border with Lebanon.

The UN estimates that 70,000 people have been displaced since the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began in March, and that more than 20,000 have fled to Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. Nearly 7,000 people are registered with the UNHCR in northern Lebanon.

'Collective approaches'

Activists are also reporting many other operations and killings by security forces in different parts of Syria - at Rastan just to the north of Homs, Qusair to the west, Idlib, and around the city of Deraa in the south.

The international community is divided on how to handle the uprising in Syria

The BBC's Jim Muir in Beirut says the Syrian military seems to be pushing ahead with a determined campaign to crush any armed resistance wherever it is encountered; and there is no obvious focus at the moment for diplomatic efforts to halt the carnage.

Now that Vladimir Putin has won the Russian presidential election, some analysts in the region believe Moscow may take a tougher position with the Syrian government, which it has been protecting at the UN Security Council by vetoing two Western-backed resolutions, our correspondent adds.

Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, is to meet Arab leaders in Cairo on Saturday.

"Considering the urgency of the Syria issue, when collective approaches for a settlement need to be found, we view this as a valuable and important format," Mr Lavrov said are meeting his Jordanian counterpart.

The Chinese foreign ministry has issued a statement calling for an immediate ceasefire and dialogue between all parties. It will also send another envoy, former ambassador to Syria Li Huaqing, to Damascus.

Both Russia and China have also backed international calls for humanitarian aid to be allowed in to Syria, but they also insist that must not be used as a pretext for external intervention.

But the opposition, backed by the Arab League and the West, says it is too late and Mr Assad must go as the first step in a transition process.

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