Aid workers find Baba Amr empty


An aid convoy from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent found that most residents had fled the devastated Homs district of Baba Amr after finally being allowed there today, as the UN humanitarian chief held rare direct talks in the Syrian capital Damascus.

Valerie Amos, who was denied entry to Syria last week, arrived on a three-day mission to try to persuade authorities to grant unhindered access for aid workers to deliver life-saving assistance to civilians. She travelled to Baba Amr in Homs after her meeting in Damascus.

She is the first international official to enter the embattled Syrian district since fighting began. She described the district as devastated by the recent shelling and almost devoid of people.

"She (Ms Amos) said that security was obviously an issue, and they heard gunfire while they were there," a spokeswoman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Amanda Pitt, said.

"The parts of Baba Amr that they saw, she said they were pretty devastated. It was like a closed-down city and there were very few people around," Ms Pitt added, saying that it "looked like it was devastated from the fighting and shelling.They saw a few people looking for their belongings."

A Red Cross aid convoy has been unable to enter Baba Amr since arriving in Homs last Friday, a day after rebel fighters fled following nearly a month of shelling by Syrian forces. But a team of Syrian Arab Red Crescent aid workers who entered Baba Amr today for the first time in 10 days found that most residents had fled.

"The Syrian Arab Red Crescent stayed inside Baba Amr for about 45 minutes. They found that most inhabitants had left Baba Amr to areas that have been already visited by the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in the past week," ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan told Reuters in Geneva.

These other areas were in Homs and the nearby village of Abel where ICRC and Red Crescent workers distributed aid today, the second time since Sunday, he said.

The Syrian foreign ministry confirmed Ms Amos had held talks with Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem but gave no details. Syrian state news agency SANA said the minister had stressed that the country's leadership was doing its best to meet civilians' needs despite the burden of "unfair sanctions" imposed by some Arab and Western countries.

The ICRC is the only international agency allowed to deploy aid workers in Syria. They have been providing food and medical supplies since the conflict began nearly a year ago. Red Crescent teams previously evacuated a total of 30 people needing medical attention from Baba Amr, some seriously wounded, on its two previous visits, according to the ICRC.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has voiced alarm at reports that government forces have executed, imprisoned and tortured people in Baba Amr.

Syrian tanks bombarded other opposition areas in Homs overnight, anti-Assad activists said, although an ICRC spokesman in Damascus said the city was quieter than before.