Highest-ranking government member to abandon Bashar al-Assad says he does not wish to die serving a “criminal regime”.
The United Nations’ humanitarian affairs chief has visited the battered Syrian opposition neighbourhood of Bab Amr, in Homs, finding it largely deserted of inhabitants, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), who arranged the visit, has told Al Jazeera.
Valerie Amos followed a delegation from the Syrian Arab Crescent into the district, after first receiving approval from the government, ICRC spokesman Saleh Dabbakeh told Al Jazeera.
She saw a city that was “completely devasted”, her spokesperson said.
Amos heard gunfire during her visit, and was denied entry into areas that were under opposition control, despite being promised by the Syrian foreign minister earlier in the day that she could visit any part of the country, Amanda Pitt, the spokesperson, said.
Dabbakeh said that two ICRC teams made visits to Homs on Wednesday. One team distributed food and non-food aid to between 300 and 400 families in Abel, a village located about 10km south of Homs where many families from Bab Amr have sought refuge.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been facing mounting international pressure over his government’s apparent refusal to allow medical aid into the devastated, largely anti-government district, in addition to alleged rights abuses by government forces.
Violence has also raged in other areas.
“It’s not only Homs, it’s not only Bab Amr. We are working with the Red Crescent all over the areas. [There is] unrest in Hama, in Idlib, in Deraa. [In] Idlib, especially, the rural areas has been affected very largely by the fighting, so what we plan to do is to continue and even tomorrow to go back to those affected areas and help as many people as possible,” Hicham Hassan, a spokesman for the ICRC, told Al Jazeera.
Earlier in the day, the Syrian government pledged to co-operate with Amos’ visit, who has been seeking access to anti-government districts that have been battered by a violent crackdown on protests.
Walid Muallem, the Syrian foreign minister, told Amos during a meeting on Wednesday that his government was attempting to provide food and medical assistance to those in need, despite “the burden it faces as a result
of unfair sanctions imposed by some Western and Arab nations which are affecting the population”.
He “underlined Syria’s commitment to cooperate with the delegation within the framework of the respect, sovereignty
and independence of Syria and in coordination with the foreign ministry,” the state SANA news agency reported.
‘Unhindered access’ sought
The United Nations’ under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs arrived in Damascus earlier on a two-day mission aimed at getting government and opposition approval for relief workers to access civilian areas badly hit during the violent unrest that has accompanied a movement against Syrian President Assad.
Amos, whose request to visit Syria was rejected earlier this month as government forces bombarded an opposition stronghold in Homs, is due to hold talks with senior government officials from Wednesday until Friday.
The aim of her visit is “to urge all sides to allow unhindered access for humanitarian relief workers so they can evacuate the wounded and deliver essential supplies,” according to Amos.
Amos’ arrival comes days before Kofi Annan, a joint UN-Arab League envoy appointed to find a way to end the violence in Syria, is due in Damascus.
Li Huaxin, a Chinese diplomat, is also currently in the Syrian capital, where he held talks with Muallem on Wednesday in which the two discussed Beijing’s six-point plan for halting the violence.
Amos’ trip comes amid reports of growing numbers of Syrians fleeing the government’s crackdown into neighbouring Lebanon, with at least 2,000 people crossing the border in the past two days, according to the UN refugee agency.
Dozens of men, women and children have returned on foot to Bab Amr, passing buildings riddled with bullet holes and other damage.
The return comes days after opposition fighters pulled out of the neighbourhood following a sustained heavy military assault.
Fresh reports of violence
Fresh violence was reported on Wednesday by activists in the provinces of Homs, Deraa, Idlib, Hama and Deir ez-Zor.
The Syrian National Council, an opposition group, said that tanks and troop carriers were seen heading into the northwestern province of Idlib on Wednesday.
“The SNC has noted 42 tanks and 131 troop carriers leaving Latakia in the direction of the town of Saraqeb,” in Idlib province, “as well as military columns heading for the town of Idlib”, the group said in a statement.
The Local Co-ordination Committees, an umbrella organisation of opposition activists, claimed that at least 21 people were killed in violence on Tuesday.
Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the UK-based opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), said government forces also bombed a bridge used to evacuate the wounded and refugees to Lebanon from Homs.
The SOHR also reported that at least 12 people – including five government troops – had been killed in clashes in the town of Herak, in Deraa, after a major government assault on the town.
Al Jazeera is unable to independently verify the activists’ claims because of restrictions on reporting imposed by the government.