Syrian rebels quit Homs stronghold


Weary Syrian rebels left a shattered district of Homs today after a 26-day military siege aimed at crushing a symbol of the almost year-long revolt against president Bashar al-Assad.

Activists said a few fighters had stayed on in Baba Amro, which has endured weeks of shelling, sniper fire and privation, to cover the "tactical withdrawal" of their comrades.

"The Free Syrian Army and all the other fighters have left Baba Amro, they pulled out," one activist said from Homs.

A statement in the name of the fighters urged the International Committee of the Red Cross and other humanitarian groups to enter Baba Amro and bring aid to 4,000 civilians who had stayed in their destroyed houses.

"We warn the regime against any retaliation against civilians and we hold it fully responsible for their safety," the statement said.

One activist said Syrian soldiers had begun moving into Baba Amro from all directions after most of the fighters left and were hunting the rest.

At least 17 rebels were killed, he said.

Hisham Hassan, an ICRC spokesman in Geneva, said it has received permission from Syrian authorities to enter Baba Amr tomorrow.

The aid group and its Syrian counterpart received a “green light” from the government to bring in emergency supplies and carry out evacuations, said Mr Hassan.

He said the Red Cross received no explicit approval from opposition groups but that rebels have previously appealed for humanitarian assistance to the district.

There was no immediate word on the fate of wounded French reporter Edith Bouvier and French photographer William Daniels, who had been among a group of journalists trapped in Baba Amro.

Two of them, American war correspondent Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik, were killed there in a bombardment on February 22nd. Two others escaped into Lebanon.

Hundreds of civilians have been killed in Homs in the past month, activists say. Many of the wounded have received only rudimentary treatment in makeshift field hospitals.

The commander of the Free Syrian Army, Riad al-Asaad, confirmed the rebel withdrawal, but said the fight against Dr Assad would go on until the president was toppled.

"There has been a tactical withdrawal," Mr Asaad, who is based in Turkey, told Al Jazeera TV.

"The Free Army has left Baba Amro because of the brutal acts of the regime against civilians."

Snow blanketed Homs, where residents are short of food, fuel, power, water and telephone links, activists said.

Reports from the city could not be verified immediately due to tight government restrictions on media operations in Syria.

Dr Assad is increasingly isolated in his struggle to crush an armed insurrection that now spearheads the revolt against four decades of his family's rule.

He still has some allies. Russia, China and Cuba voted against a resolution adopted overwhelmingly by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council which condemned Syria for violations that may amount to crimes against humanity.

A Lebanese official close to Damascus said Dr Assad's government was determined to regain control of Homs, Syria's third city, which straddles the main north-south highway.

"They want to take it, whatever happens, without restraint, whatever the cost," the official said, asking not to be named.

He said defeat for the rebels in Homs would leave the opposition without any major stronghold in Syria, easing the crisis for Dr Assad, who remained confident he could survive.

The exile opposition Syrian National Council said it had formed a military bureau to oversee and organise armed anti-Assad groups under a unified leadership.

"The creation of the military bureau was agreed upon by all armed forces in Syria," SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun told a news conference in Paris.

"We will be like a defence ministry."

The SNC has been criticised by some Syrians for not overtly backing the armed struggle led by the loosely organised Free Syrian Army, made up of army deserters and other insurgents.

There was no immediate comment from the rebel army.

With Dr Assad's forces closing in on rebels in Homs, the SNC appealed for help late last night, urging the UN-Arab League envoy on Syria, Kofi Annan, to go to Baba Amro "tonight".

Mr Annan said in New York he expected to visit Syria soon and urged Dr Assad to engage with efforts to end the turmoil.

Syria, which denied entry this week to UN humanitarian aid chief Valerie Amos, adopted a guarded approach to Mr Annan's role.

The state news agency Sana quoted foreign ministry spokesman Jihad al-Maqdisi as saying the government was "waiting for a clarification from the UN on the nature of his mission".

The ministry also said it was ready to discuss a date for Amos to visit instead of the "inconvenient" one she had sought.

Russian deputy foreign minister Gennady Gatilov said in Geneva he hoped Syria would let Ms Amos in soon.

Russia, which along with China, has shielded Syria from UN security council action, is emerging as a pivotal player in diplomacy aimed at halting the bloodshed and relieving the humanitarian crisis facing civilians caught in conflict zones.

Moscow has invited Mr Annan for talks on Syria and, according to Kuwaiti officials, will send foreign minister Sergei Lavrov to meet his Gulf Arab counterparts in Riyadh next week.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have led calls for the world to arm Syrian rebels following last month's Russian-Chinese veto of a draft UN security council resolution on Syria.

Syria's Maqdisi told Lebanon's Hezbollah-run al-Manar television that the Saudis and Qataris were "singing from the same hymn sheet" as al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, who has urged Arabs and Muslims to support anti-Assad insurgents.

Kuwait's parliament, dominated by Sunni Islamists, said it had agreed to support the Free Syrian Army and urged the Kuwaiti government to cut relations with Syria.

While the Sunni Gulf monarchies have been alarmed by demands for democracy inspired by popular revolts across the Arab world, they have also long been at odds with Shia Iran, their non-Arab rival on the other side of the Gulf, and with Tehran's Arab allies, Alawite-ruled Syria and the Shias of Hezbollah.

The grievances of Syria's Sunni majority under Dr Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shia Islam, have struck a chord with both the public and wealthy rulers in the Gulf.

The United States and its allies are seeking a new security council resolution on Syria, which Western envoys said would focus on humanitarian problems to try to win Chinese and Russian support, but would also criticise Dr Assad.

The army ground assault on Baba Amro followed more than three weeks in which Dr Assad's forces have bombarded rebel enclaves in Homs with rockets, shells and mortar rounds.

The United Nations says Dr Assad's security forces have killed more than 7,500 civilians since the revolt began last March. Syria's government said in December that "armed terrorists" had killed more than 2,000 soldiers and police during the unrest.