Baba Amr

A Free Syrian Army fighter poses for the picture in Idlib, north Syria, Wednesday, March 7, 2012.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BEIRUT — The U.N. humanitarian chief toured the shattered Syrian district of Baba Amr on Wednesday but found residents had fled after a bloody military siege, while activists accused the government of hiding evidence of atrocities there.

“They haven’t let anyone in for a week, and now they are going to let them in?” Homs activists Tarek Badrakhan told The Associated Press. “Today it’s simple: They finished their crimes and hid all the proof. Now they think they can show that everything is normal.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lashed out at the delays in letting aid workers in.

“The regime’s refusal to allow humanitarian workers to help feed the hungry, tend to the injured, bury the dead, marks a new low,” she said. “Tons of food and medicine are standing by while more civilians die and the regime launches new assaults.”

U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said the aim of her two-day visit to Syria was “to urge all sides to allow unhindered access for humanitarian relief workers so they can evacuate the wounded and deliver essential supplies.” She met with Syria’s foreign minister, but it was unclear whether she would be allowed to return to Baba Amr or deliver any aid. In Washington, Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee the Pentagon has done a commander’s assessment focused on mission, enemy, terrain, troops and time, at Obama’s request, and would be ready if a decision were made for military action in Syria. After seizing Baba Amr from the rebels, regime forces now appear to be turning their attention to other rebellious areas. A wave of new arrests was reported in Homs by the Local Coordinating Committees, an activist group, as well as assaults on the northern province of Idlib near Turkey.

Printed on Thursday, March 8, 2012 as: Syria allows aid, Obama requests military report

BEIRUT — After a punishing, monthlong military siege, Syrian rebels made what they called a “tactical retreat” Thursday from a key district in Homs, saying they were running low on weapons and the humanitarian conditions were unbearable.

Within hours of the rebels’ withdrawal, President Bashar Assad’s regime granted permission for the International Committee of the Red Cross to enter the neighborhood of Baba Amr, which had become a symbol of the resistance.

Human rights workers have been appealing for access for weeks to deliver food, water and medicine, and to help evacuate the wounded from an area that has been sealed off and attacked by the government since early February.

The Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent received a “green light” from the Syrian authorities to enter Baba Amr on Friday “to bring in much-needed assistance including food and medical aid, and to carry out evacuation operations,” ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan said in Geneva. Also Thursday, Syria’s main op position group, the Syrian National Council, formed a military bureau to help organize the armed resistance and funnel weapons to rebels — a sign of how deeply militarized the conflict has become over the past year.

The dead body of anti-Syrian regime protester is seen wrapped by the Syrian revolution flag and according to Syrian activists that was killed by the Syrian security forces during a demonstration, at Mazzeh district in Damascus, Syria on Monday. Syrian security forces fired live rounds and tear gas Saturday at thousands of people marching in a funeral procession that turned into one of the largest protests in Damascus since the 11-month uprising against President Bashar Assad began.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BEIRUT — Syrian tanks and troops massed Monday outside the resistance stronghold of Homs for a possible ground assault that one activist warned could unleash a new round of fierce and bloody urban combat even as the Red Cross tried to broker a cease-fire to allow emergency aid in.

A flood of military reinforcements has been a prelude to previous offensives by President Bashar Assad’s regime, which has tried to use its overwhelming firepower to crush an opposition that has been bolstered by defecting soldiers and hardened by 11 months of street battles.

“The human loss is going to be huge if they retake Baba Amr,” said Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The central city of Homs — and in particular the opposition district known as Baba Amr — has become a critical ground for both sides.

The opposition has lionized it as “Syria’s Misrata” after the Libyan city where rebels fought off a brutal government siege. Assad’s regime wants desperately to erase the embarrassing defiance in Syria’s third-largest city after weeks of shelling, including a barrage of mortars that killed up to 200 people earlier this month. At least nine people were killed in shelling Monday, activists said.

Another massive death toll would only bring further international isolation on Assad from Western and Arab leaders.

“The massacre in Syria goes on,” said U.S. Sen. John McCain during a visit to Cairo, where he urged Washington and its allies to find way to help arm and equip Syrian rebels.

McCain, a senior member of the Senate Armed Service Committee, said he did not support direct U.S. weapons supplies to Syrian opposition forces, but has suggested the Arab League or others could help bolster the fighting power of the anti-Assad groups. The U.S., he said, could assist with equipment such as medical supplies or global positioning devices.

“It is time we gave them the wherewithal to fight back and stop the slaughter,” he said.

Assad’s fall also would be a potentially devastating blow for his close ally Iran, which counts on Syria as its most reliable Arab ally and a pathway for aid to Tehran’s patron Hezbollah in Lebanon. But McCain urged for “like-minded” Western and Arab nations also to guard against attempts by al-Qaida or other extremists to exploit a leadership vacuum if the regime crumbles.

“For us to sit back and do nothing while people are being slaughtered ... is an affront to everything America stands for and believes in,” said McCain, suggesting that the Republicans could seek to make Syria a central campaign issue in this year’s U.S. presidential election.

In Cairo, Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby suggested at a news conference in Cairo that Russia and China - two countries that recently supported Damascus by vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Assad’s regime - may be shifting their positions.

“There are some indications, especially from China and to some degree from Russia that there may be a change in their stance,” he said, without elaborating.

Syria-based activist Mustafa Osso told The Associated Press that Assad’s military should face strong resistance as residents plan to fight until “the last person.” He added that Homs is facing “savage shelling that does not differentiate between military or civilians targets.”

The Baba Amr neighborhood on Homs’ southwest edge has become the centerpiece of the city’s opposition. Hundreds of army defectors are thought to be taking shelter, clashing with troops in hit-and-run attacks.

Amateur videos posted online showed what activists said were shells falling into Baba Amr. Black smoke billowed from residential areas. Phone lines and Internet connections have been cut with the city, making it difficult to get firsthand accounts from Homs residents.

In Geneva, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross said the group has been in talks with Syrian authorities and opposition groups to negotiate a cease-fire in the most war-torn areas.

“We are currently discussing several possibilities with all those concerned, and it includes a cessation of fighting in the most affected areas,” the spokeswoman, Carla Haddad, told the AP.

She said the talks weren’t aimed at resolving any of the entrenched political differences. “The idea is to be able to facilitate swift access to people in need,” Haddad said.

Clashes between military rebels and Syrian forces are growing more frequent and the defectors have managed to take control of small pieces of territory in the north as well as parts of Homs province, which is Syria’s largest stretching from the border with Lebanon in the west to Iraq and Jordan in the east. Increasingly, Syria appears to be careening toward an all-out civil war.

Activists believe Assad may be trying to subdue Homs — an important stronghold for anti-Assad groups — before a planned referendum Sunday on a new constitution. The charter would allow a bigger role for political opposition to challenge Assad’s Baath Party, which has controlled Syria since a 1963 coup.

But the leaders of the uprising have dismissed the referendum as an attempt at superficial reforms that do nothing to crack the regime’s hold on power.

“We have called for a boycott of the referendum which cannot be held while parts of Syria are a war zone,” said Omar Idilbi, a Beirut-based member of the opposition Syrian National Council.

The U.N. last gave a death toll for the conflict in January, saying 5,400 had been killed in 2011 alone. But hundreds more have been killed since, according to activist groups. The group Local Coordination Committees says more than 7,300 have been killed since March of last year. There is no way to independently verify the numbers, however, as Syria bans almost all foreign journalists and human rights organizations.

In the western Hama province, troops backed by armored personnel carriers and military buses stormed several villages, conducting raids and arrests. A 32-year-old man was killed by gunfire from a security checkpoint in the area, activists said.

In the Damascus suburb of Douma, thousands of people took part in the funeral of 19-year-old army conscript, Omar Halbouni, whom activists say was executed by the military because he refused to open fire at protesters in Homs a day earlier. It was the third straight day of funeral marches and protests in the tightly controlled regime stronghold.

“Freedom, freedom!” shouted mourners at his funeral, as they paraded his body strewn with flowers on a stretcher near the Abdel Raouf Mosque, said witness Mohammad al-Saeed.

By evening, a few hundred Syrians held an anti-Assad protest in Damascus only few hundred yards away from a major security building. Amateur video posted online showed men and woman shouting: “We will kneel only before God” and other slogans in support of Homs and other Syrian cities.

On Sunday, activists said at least 18 people were killed in Syria, including a senior state prosecutor and a judge who were shot dead by gunmen in the restive northwestern province of Idlib.

A Syrian rebel peers through a window in Idlib, Syria on Thursday. Syrian forces fired mortars and rockets that killed scores of people Thursday in the rebellious city of Homs, activists said, the latest strike in a weeklong assault as President Bashar AssadÂ’s regime tries to crush increasingly militarized pockets of dissent.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BEIRUT — Between blasts of rockets and mortar fire, Syrians used loudspeakers to call for blood donations and medical supplies Thursday in the stricken city of Homs, where a weeklong government offensive has created a deepening humanitarian crisis.

Government forces are trying to crush pockets of violent resistance in Homs, the epicenter of an 11-month-old uprising that has brought the country ever closer to civil war. The intense shelling in restive neighborhoods such as Baba Amr has made it difficult to get medicine and care to the wounded, and some areas have been without electricity for days, activists say.

“Snipers are on all the roofs in Baba Amr, shooting at people,” Abu Muhammad Ibrahim, an activist in Homs, told The Associated Press by phone.

“Anything that moves, even a bird, is targeted. Life is completely cut off. It’s a city of ghosts,” he added.

As he spoke, explosions could be heard in the background.

“The bombardment has not eased, day or night,” he said, asking to be identified by his nickname for fear of reprisals. “Do you hear the sound of the rockets? Children have been wounded, elderly with extreme injuries.”

Hundreds of people are believed to have been killed since early Saturday in the heaviest attack the city has endured since the uprising began in March, activists said.

“This brutal assault on residential neighborhoods shows the Syrian authorities’ contempt for the lives of their citizens in Homs,” said Anna Neistat, associate emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “Those responsible for such horrific attacks will have to answer for them.”

Human Rights Watch also said eyewitness accounts, as well as video reviewed by the group’s arms experts, suggest Syrian government forces are using long-range, indirect fire weapons such as mortars.

Such weapons “are inherently indiscriminate when fired into densely populated areas,” the New York-based group said.

The wounded have overwhelmed makeshift hospitals and clinics, and there were growing concerns that the locked-down city could soon run out of supplies.

“There is medicine in the pharmacies, but getting it to the field clinics is very difficult. They can’t get the medicine to the wounded,” Mohammed Saleh, a Syria-based activist, told the AP by telephone.

Baba Amr, he said, has been without electricity since Saturday.

The assault on Homs began after reports that army defectors and other armed opponents of President Bashar Assad were setting up their own checkpoints and taking control of some areas. The reports could not be confirmed.

But the city is the capital of Syria’s largest province, stretching from the Lebanese border to the Iraqi frontier. If rebel forces keep gaining ground there, some believe they could ultimately carve out a zone akin to Benghazi in eastern Libya, where rebels launched their successful uprising against Moammar Gadhafi last year.

Saleh said most of the government attacks have been “bombardment from a distance,” with regime forces keeping armored vehicles out of the neighborhoods.

Fighters from the rebel Free Syrian Army have been firing back with rocket-propelled grenades and rockets, according to activists’ accounts.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees were trying to compile numbers and names of those killed Thursday. The LCC, an activist group, said up to 100 people were killed in Homs, but the toll was impossible to independently verify. The Observatory reported 63 deaths in Homs.

Activists also reported violence in the towns of Zabadani and Daraa.

As the bloodshed persists, the international community is searching for new diplomatic approaches to stop the protracted conflict.The Syrian government blames the unrest on a foreign conspiracy by Israel and the West. It says armed gangs and terrorists are behind the uprising, not protesters seeking democratic change.

The uprising began with mostly peaceful protests but has transformed into an armed insurgency against Assad in many areas, raising fears the country is spiraling toward civil war. In January, the U.N. estimated an overall death toll of more than 5,400 since March.

The number of children killed has climbed into the hundreds, said Radhika Coomaraswamy, the U.N. representative for children in armed conflict, adding that the situation was particularly harrowing in Homs.

The Syrian regime’s crackdown on dissent has left it almost completely isolated internationally as nations have imposed sanctions and withdrawn diplomats. In the latest action, Libya on Thursday gave Syria’s top envoy to the country and embassy staff 72 hours to leave, according to Libyan Foreign Ministry press officer Saad Elshlmani.

Assad has political backing from Russia and China, which delivered a double veto over the weekend in the U.N. Security Council that blocked a resolution calling on him to leave power.

On Wednesday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the lack of unity on the council “has encouraged the Syrian government” to step up its attacks on civilians.

“Thousands have been killed in cold blood, shredding President Assad’s claims to speak for the Syrian people,” Ban said. “I fear that the appalling brutality we are witnessing in Homs, with heavy weapons firing into civilian neighborhoods, is a grim harbinger of worse to come.”

The sanctions are crippling Syria’s economy, but they have failed to stop the military offensives.

There also are fears that the conflict is taking on dangerous sectarian overtones in some areas, including Homs.

Syria’s 22 million people are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, but Assad and the ruling elite belong to the Alawite sect, which comprises about 10 percent of the population.

The political domination by Alawites has bred seething resentment, which Assad tried to tamp down by enforcing the strictly secular ideology of his Baath Party.

But as the uprising surged, with Sunnis making up the backbone of the revolt, Assad called heavily upon his Alawite power base to crush the resistance, feeding sectarian tensions like those that fueled civil wars in Iraq and Lebanon.

A senior Arab League official said the Cairo-based organization will discuss Sunday whether to recognize the opposition Syrian National Council as the legitimate representative of Syria and whether to allow it to open offices in Arab capitals. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because no decision has been made on the issue.

The U.N. chief said the head of the Arab League plans to send observers back into Syria and has raised the possibility of a joint mission with the United Nations. Ban provided no specifics, but the idea appears aimed at giving the league a boost after its earlier mission was pulled out of Syria because of security concerns.

Also Thursday, Germany expelled four Syrian diplomats following the arrest this week of two men accused of spying on Syrian opposition groups in the country.

Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he ordered the expulsions of the four Syrian Embassy employees.

German federal prosecutors said Tuesday they had arrested a Syrian and a German-Lebanese dual national on suspicion that they spied on Syrian opposition supporters in Germany for several years.