AMMAN, Feb 29 (Reuters) - Heavy fighting raged near Baba Amro in Homs on
Wednesday after elite Syrian troops attacked the rebel-held bastion that has
endured 25 days of siege and fierce bombardment, activists said.
"Pray for the Free Syrian Army. Do not be miserly in your prayers for them,"
opponents of President Bashar al-Assad said in a statement, as diplomats
spoke of his brother's feared 4th Armoured Division mounting a drive to
"finish off" the rebels.
The motley band of army deserters and desperate insurgents who call
themselves the Farouq Brigade of the Free Syrian Army have sworn to fight to
the last man, one activist from Baba Amro told Reuters. Others, though, said
some of the unit's leaders had already made their escape from the shattered
The 4th Armoured Division commanded by Maher al-Assad, the president's
younger brother, has a reputation for ruthlessness burnished during the past
year of revolt and forged in history.
Drawn from the Alawite sect to which the Assads belong, it is hated by many
in the Sunni majority who recall the role its predecessor units played in
massacring many thousands of Sunni Islamists at Hama in 1982 on the orders
of Assad's father Hafez.
Details from Homs were sketchy but as Syria refused to allow a visit to the
country by a senior U.N. humanitarian envoy, Valerie Amos, a senior Western
diplomat told Reuters: "All the signs out of Homs are that they're trying to
finish it off.
"They clearly feel that letting her in now would be devastating for their
image - as indeed it would be."
Communicating over the Internet, the Baba Amro activist, who calls himself
only Ahmed and who said he had just left the area, said: "We call on all
Syrians in other cities to move and do something to lift the pressure off
Baba Amro and Homs.
"They should act quickly."
Homs, a symbol of opposition to Assad in a nearly year-long revolt, was
without power or telephone links, Ahmed said.
Spanish reporter Javier Espinosa, one of several Western journalists trapped
in Baba Amro for a week, crossed to Lebanon on Wednesday, an activist said,
following the escape on Tuesday of wounded British photographer Paul Conroy.
Still in Homs were French journalists William Daniels and Edith Bouvier, who
was wounded in a Feb. 22 bombardment which killed veteran Sunday Times war
correspondent Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik. Their bodies
YouTube footage posted by activists showed army trucks and tank carriers on
a highway, purportedly heading for Homs.
"I am appalled by reports that the Assad regime is preparing a full-scale
land assault on the people of Homs," Britain's Foreign Secretary William
Hague said, calling instead for immediate access for humanitarian groups to
Reports from the city could not immediately be verified due to tight
government restrictions on media work in Syria, where Assad is facing the
gravest challenge of his 11-year rule.
A spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, Hicham Hassan,
said the violence in Homs was making the humanitarian situation more
"This makes it even more important for us to repeat our call for a halt in
the fighting," he told Reuters in Geneva.
Activists say hundreds of civilians have been killed in besieged opposition
districts of Homs, including at least 20 on Tuesday. Shells and rockets have
been crashing into Baba Amro since Feb. 4. Army snipers pick off civilians
who venture out.
The ICRC said its Syrian Red Crescent affiliate had established 10
distribution and first aid points in Homs, but had been unable to operate in
Baba Amro because of the violence.
Troops also bombarded the besieged town of Rastan, 20 km (13 miles) north of
Homs, and several people were killed when a shell hit a house, the Syrian
Observatory for Human Rights said.
Activists said troops and pro-Assad militiamen had also attacked the town of
Helfaya, an opposition stronghold near Hama, detaining people and raiding
and burning houses.
YouTube footage posted by activists showed crowds of people in the nearby
town of Kernaz protesting in solidarity with Helfaya. Demonstrators danced,
waved pre-Baathist era Syrian flags and chanted: "God support your oppressed
Troops and militiamen launched a security sweep in the eastern Damascus
suburb of Harasta, where telephone services have been cut off for the past
month, activists said.
The United Nations says 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.
U.N. humanitarian chief Amos said she was "deeply disappointed" Syria
refused to let her visit the country, where she had hoped to assess the
emergency relief needs in besieged towns. "Given the rapidly deteriorating
humanitarian situation, with an increasing need for medical assistance, food
and basic supplies, improving access, so that assistance can reach those in
urgent need, is a matter of the highest priority," she said.
The senior Western diplomat who spoke of efforts to "finish off" the rebels
in Homs said Syria had decided to deny Amos entry "despite Russian efforts
to get her access".
The United States has outlined a new U.N. Security Council resolution on
Syria, to demand access for relief workers and an end to violence, Western
envoys said on Tuesday.
They said the draft focused on humanitarian problems to try to win Chinese
and Russian support and isolate Assad, but that it would also suggest Assad
was to blame for the crisis, a stance his longtime ally Russia has opposed.
Russia and China vetoed a draft resolution on Feb. 4 that would have backed
an Arab League call for Assad to step down, but both nations have signalled
support for humanitarian action.
Kofi Annan, the newly appointed U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria, said he
would hold talks in New York from Wednesday with U.N. Secretary-General Ban
Ki-moon and member states. He will then meet Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said that Annan, the former
U.N. secretary-general, had also been invited to Moscow.
One obstacle to international efforts on Syria has been disunity among
Assad's opponents, with no single group emerging as a credible and widely
Libya, one of the first states to recognise the opposition Syrian National
Council as Syria's legitimate authority, pledged on Wednesday to give it
$100 million in humanitarian aid, in another gesture of solidarity from a
nation whose NATO-backed rebels overthrew Muammar Gaddafi. (Additional
reporting by Dominic Evans, Erika Solomon and Mariam Karouny in Beirut,
Steve Gutterman in Moscow, Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations, Taha
Zargoun in Tripoli and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Alistair
Lyon; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)
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Received on Wed Feb 29 2012 - 16:29:52 EST