Syrian forces entering rebel-held pockets


SYRIAN FORCES yesterday were reportedly entering rebel-held pockets in Homs as negotiations began on a UN Security Council resolution calling for the delivery of humanitarian aid to contested areas.

In spite of snow and sleet, troops apparently entered the Homs neighbourhood of Bab Amr from the north and began searching for insurgents and arms.

The ground action was confirmed by an unidentified official who said Bab Amr would be “cleaned” within hours, a claim disputed by activists. But since communications with the quarter have been disrupted, it has been impossible to verify reports.

Army units were said to have secured the town of Halfaya in Hama province, near Homs, and to have shelled the insurgent-held town of Rastan west of Homs.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said power had been cut to Bayadah and Khalidiyeh, two other rebel strongholds in Homs, and it was expected that these quarters would be attacked as well.

If the Syrian army sticks to its modus operandi, troops will arrest and disarm a portion of the rebel fighters holding out in Bab Amr while hardcore insurgents and foreign elements will relocate to the countryside and launch guerrilla attacks on army posts, checkpoints, convoys and strategic targets such as oil pipelines and power sub-stations.

A source in Damascus said the military can tolerate this type of warfare for some time in the expectation that insurgent bands will eventually be caught or wiped out.

The majority of the 28,000 civilians living in Bab Amr are believed to have fled to villages in Homs province or to Damascus, where thousands have taken refuge with relatives or rented flats on short-term leases.

Bab Amr is a key military objective for the Syrian army since it is the last major rebel stronghold. Restive areas of Hama were captured by the army during Ramadan while Zabadani, a resort town near the Lebanese border, was taken last month.

Paris has confirmed that two French journalists, Edith Bouvier and William Daniels, remain in Bab Amr following a botched attempt to escape to Lebanon last weekend. Paul Conroy, a Sunday Times photographer, reached Lebanon, but 13 of the activists involved in his escape were reported killed. The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent got the go-ahead from the regime and rebels to evacuate the journalists last Friday, but Ms Bouvier refused to leave and the others stayed in solidarity with her.Spanish reporter Javier Espinosa of the daily El Mundo was yesterday reported to have fled Bab Amr and to be in Lebanon.

In New York, the UN Security Council held talks on a draft resolution circulated by the US aimed at getting humanitarian aid to contested areas. China has supported this demand, although it continues to oppose armed intervention. Russia could follow suit.

Last month the two countries vetoed a resolution demanding a ceasefire and calling on President Bashar al-Assad to hand power to a deputy. Expressing US concern that al-Qaeda was exploiting the conflict to gain a foothold in Syria, White House spokesman Jay Carney said this was not the time to provide arms to the rebels.