Elite Syrian Army Units Besiege Rebel Districts

Posted February 29th, 2012 at 4:50 pm (UTC-5)
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Syrian security forces have launched a ground assault on the besieged city of Homs, in an attempt to overrun rebel-held districts that have endured nearly a month of fierce bombardment.

Activists said Wednesday that elite Fourth Armored Division units under the command of President Bashar al-Assad's brother, Maher, were engaged in pitched battles with the rebel Free Syrian Army just outside the opposition Baba Amr and al-Inshaat neighborhoods.

A Syrian official vowed Baba Amr would be “cleansed” within hours. But an activist in the district told VOA via Skype that rebel lines have held.

The activist, who uses the pseudonym Abo Emad, said he had witnessed about 16 government soldiers abandon their tanks and defect to the opposition Wednesday morning. He said rebel army sources told him more desertions were taking place as troops enter the city and blend in with the local population.

Abo Emad also said both regular army forces and pro-government Shabiha militia were raiding houses in Homs' wealthy al-Inshaat neighborhood, stealing personal effects and setting fire to the targeted homes.

VOA cannot independently confirm opposition or government reports.

Also Wednesday, a second journalist who had been trapped in Homs escaped to neighboring Lebanon. Spaniard Javier Espinosa was one of four foreign reporters in Baba Amr since a rocket attack last week by Syrian military forces killed two Western colleagues. There are still two wounded journalists in the besieged district.

Activists said troops also entered the central town of Halfaya in Hama province after five days of intense shelling. They said the rebel-held town of Rastan, just north of Homs, was shelled and that casualties were reported.

Meanwhile, Libya said it will donate $100 million in humanitarian assistance to the Syrian opposition and allow them to open an office in Tripoli. Last October, Libya's new government became one of the first countries to recognize the Syrian National Council as the legitimate authority in Syria.

U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said Syria has rejected her repeated requests to visit the country in order to assess the growing crisis. Diplomats said Damascus denied the visit despite efforts by Russia, Mr. Assad's closest international ally, to get Amos access.

The move came as Kofi Annan, the newly appointed United Nations-Arab League envoy for Syria, said he will discuss the situation Wednesday with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and member states in New York. He will then go to Cairo for talks with Arab League head Nabil Elaraby.

The State Department Wednesday summoned Syria's senior diplomat in the U.S. to express outrage over the offensive in Homs. Washington's Mideast envoy, Jeffrey Feltman, told Zuheir Jabbour the Syrian government must end the violence, remove its military from cities and accept an Arab-proposed plan for a transition of power.

The U.N. says more than 7,500 people have been killed in the 11 months of violence. Syrian officials blame the uprising on foreign-backed armed “terrorists” whom the government says have killed more than 2,000 security personnel.