Syrian rebels make 'tactical' retreat from Bab Amr


SYRIAN REBEL forces yesterday pulled out of the Bab Amr quarter of Homs, the country’s third city, after a 26-day siege.

The Bab Amr brigades announced that they were making a “tactical retreat” because of the 4,000 civilians remaining there.

The fighters called on the international committee of the Red Cross and other agencies to provide humanitarian assistance to the residents. “We warn the regime against any retaliation against civilians and we hold it fully responsible for their safety.”

A security official in Damascus confirmed the rebels’ withdrawal: “The Syrian army controls all of Bab Amr. The last pockets of resistance have fallen.”

The international committee of the Red Cross said units of the Red Crescent would enter Bab Amr today. Rebels said wounded French journalist Édith Bouvier, caught up in the fighting, was in a “safe place”.

The fall of Bab Amr coincided with the formation of a military bureau by the West-backed Syrian National Council (SNC) exiled opposition coalition.

SNC head Burhan Ghalioun said during a press conference in Paris that the objective of the bureau was to identify diverse militias, organise and unify them under one command, define missions, and place them under the political supervision of the SNC. The bureau is to seek expertise and channel weaponry for the fighters.

The establishment of the SNC’s military bureau followed the defection of 20 senior secular and Muslim fundamentalist figures who argued that the SNC, which had been divided over this issue, must provide finance and weapons for the armed struggle.

This decision is likely to create rifts with the National Co-ordination Committee, an opposition group with supporters abroad and on the ground in Syria, and other Syria-based groups which insist on a return to peaceful protest and dialogue with the regime as the means to resolve the crisis.

Although Arab League secretary general Nabil al-Arabi retorted that the organisation had nothing to do with arming the rebels, diplomatic sources in Syria argue that league members Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been smuggling weapons to Syrian militias for several months.

Turkey, which fostered the creation of the SNC and provided refuge for army defectors, has said it will not host the military bureau.

Diplomatic sources also say the “Free Syrian Army” is a name disparate local militias adopt without co-ordinating action or putting themselves under the command of Col Riad al-Assad, a defector based in Turkey who proclaimed the founding of the Free Syrian Army last year. He is said to have an office and a fax machine but no staff or troops.

The militias consist of untrained youths, men who entered the country to fight the regime and army deserters. Most militia members are reputed to be Muslim fundamentalists.

The rebels are armed with semi-automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, home-made explosive devices and equipment captured from the army.

As Bab Amr fell, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution condemning the Syrian government for “widespread and systematic violations of human rights” and calling for a halt to abuses and for free access to contested areas for UN and humanitarian agencies.

The US, nine EU council members and Turkey were among 37 voting in favour. Claiming the resolution was “one-sided”, Russia, China and Cuba voted against. India, Ecuador and the Philippines abstained and four countries did not participate.

Under Russian pressure, Damascus has announced it would welcome a visit by UN humanitarian co-ordinator Valerie Amos to assess the needs of civilians in conflict areas, while UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, who has called for a peaceful resolution to the crisis, has said he would visit Syria “fairly soon” .

Britain and Switzerland have closed their embassies in Damascus. Moscow, meanwhile, has invited Mr Annan for talks and, according to Kuwaiti officials, will send foreign minister Sergei Lavrov to meet his Gulf Arab counterparts in Riyadh next week. – (Additional reporting: Reuters)