Shelling in Homs as Red Cross seeks access

Syrian troops renew artillery attacks on parts of city, and medics still denied access to help thousands of wounded.

    Syrian forces have renewed their bombardment of rebellious areas of Homs, activists said, and the Red Cross was again denied access to thousands of people stranded in a district overrun by regime troops after a month-long siege.

    Conditions in the western neighborhood of Bab Amr have been described as catastrophic, with new reports on Saturday of extended power outages, shortages of food and water, and no medical care for the sick and wounded.

    Syrian government forces took control of the neighborhood on Thursday after rebels fled the district under the same constant bombardment that activists said killed hundreds of people since early February.

    The Syrian regime has said it was fighting "armed gangs" in Bab Amr, and has vowed to "cleanse" the neighborhood.

    Al Jazeera's Sue Turton, reporting from Beirut, said the United Nations and international rights groups were investigating the government's crackdown in the area, adding that many locals were wondering where the next government offensive will take place.

    "Shelling is now going on in a different nieghbourhood of Homs. Many many believe the same 'cleansing' of Bab Amr, as the army is calling it, is going to be carried  out in areas in the south [of the city], where it is believed many of the Free Syrian Army has gone," Turton said.

    Other areas

    News agencies confirmed that other areas in Homs, Syria's third-largest city with about one million people, came under heavy shelling on Saturday, including areas where many of Bab Amr's residents had fled.

    The Local Coordination Committees activist network said mortars slammed into the districts of Khaldiyeh, Bab Sbaa and Khader.

    Abu Hassan al-Homsi, a doctor at a makeshift clinic in Khaldiyeh district of Homs, said he treated a dozen people who were wounded, most lightly.

    "This has become routine, the mortars start falling early in the morning," he said. Several homes were damaged from the morning shelling, which he described as steady but intermittent.

    Another Khaldiyeh resident who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals said the district has been without water and heating fuel for a week, amid freezing temperatures.

    "We are collecting rain and snow water, and cutting trees to burn to warm ourselves," he said.

    ICRC blocked

    The Red Cross said earlier this week that it had received permission from President Bashar al-Assad's government to enter Bab Amr.

    A convoy of seven trucks with 15 tons of humanitarian aid including food, medical supplies and blankets left Damascus on Friday, taking several hours in heavy snowfall to reach Homs.

    But once they neared Bab Amr, the government prevented them from entering.

    "We are still in negotiations to enter Bab Amr," ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan said Saturday in Geneva.

    The Syrians said they were not letting the Red Cross into Bab Amr because of safety concerns, including land mines, Hassan said, adding the organization had not been able to verify the danger.

    The government has not offered its explanation for revoking the permission.

    "It's important that we get in today," Hassan said. "We are not about to give up."

    According to Al Jazeera's Turton, the government may have other motives for keeping the medics out of Bab Amr.

    "There have been reports that some sort of government clean-up operation is going on, rounding up men older than 14. There have been reports of imprisonment, torture and even executions [of opposition fighters], and they don't want the ICRC or independent people there to witness this," Turton said.

    Foreign journalists

    In Damascus, Red Crescent officials handed over to embassy officials the bodies of two foreign journalists who were killed in shelling while trapped inside Bab Amr.

    French Ambassador Eric Chevallier received the body of French photographer Remi Ochlik, and a Polish diplomat received the remains of American Marie Colvin. Washington's interests in Syria are represented by Poland.

    Both journalists had sneaked into Syria illegally to try to get an eyewitness view of the government crackdown in the country. They died on February 22 in shelling that also wounded Edith Bouvier of the daily Le Figaro and
    British photographer Paul Conroy.

    Turkey's foreign minister said a lack of international consensus over Syria is emboldening the government there to proceed with its crackdown.

    Ahmet Davutoglu said the scale of the killing matches the bloodshed in the Balkans wars of the 1990s, and described the Syrian regime's actions as a "crime against humanity".

    Davutoglu spoke Saturday at a joint news conference with his Italian counterpart, Giulio Terzi. Both ministers criticized Syria for blocking the Red Cross convoy.

    Suicide bombings

    In other violence on Saturday, a suicide car bomb exploded in Deraa, killing at least two people and wounding 20, activists said.

    The state-run news agency said the blast occurred at a roundabout in an area known as Deraa al-Balad and said there were casualties including civilians and security forces.

    It blamed "terrorists" for the attack. But residents taking part in the funeral of the two on Saturday blamed the regime. "They were killed by an explosion prepared by the Assad gang," a banner read.

    During the funeral procession, which was shown live online, a crowd of people cried: "Death rather than humiliation", and "We will take our revenge from Maher and Bashar", a reference to Assad's younger brother Maher, who is believed to be leading the crackdown against the opposition.

    Deraa is the birthplace of the nearly year-old uprising against Assad. The revolt has killed more than 7,500 people, according to the most recent UN estimate.

    Syria has seen a string of suicide bombings, the last on February 10, when twin blasts struck security compounds in the government stronghold city of Aleppo, killing 28 people and bringing significant violence for the first time to the city.

    The capital Damascus, another Assad stronghold, has seen three suicide bombings in the past two months.

    The regime has touted the attacks as proof that it is being targeted by "terrorists". The opposition accuses forces loyal to the government of being behind the bombings to tarnish the uprising.

    Saturday's bombing in Deraa marked the first time a suicide bombing struck an opposition stronghold.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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