Elite Syrian Army Units Besiege Rebel Districts in Homs

Posted February 29th, 2012 at 8:05 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 4th Armored Division units under the command of President Bashar al-Assad's brother, Maher, were engaged in pitched battles with Free Syrian Army rebels just outside the Baba Amr and al-Inshaat neighborhoods.

A Syrian official vowed that Baba Amr would be “cleansed” within hours. But an activist in the district told VOA via Skype that rebel lines have held. The U.S. State Department summoned Syria's senior diplomat in Washington to express outrage about the government's offensive.

Newly-appointed U.N.-Arab League joint envoy for Syria Kofi Annan said Wednesday he will travel to Syria “fairly soon” to “plead” with Mr. Assad to engage in dialogue with the opposition for a peaceful resolution of the country's unrest. The Syrian president has been waging a deadly crackdown on a nearly year-long uprising against his 11-year autocratic rule.

Speaking in New York, Annan also said the “killing and violence” in Syria must stop and humanitarian workers must be given access to trapped civilians. He said it is “regrettable” that Syria has not granted such access. The former U.N. secretary-general is due to begin his first visit to the region as a Syria envoy by holding talks with Arab League head Nabil Elaraby in Cairo.

U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said Syria rejected her repeated requests to visit the country to assess the escalating crisis. Diplomats said Russia had tried to persuade Syria, a longtime ally, to let Amos enter.

Syrian rights groups said at least 15 people were killed in violence related to the uprising on Wednesday.

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

Abo Emad also said pro-Assad regular troops and Shabiha militiamen 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 who survived a government rocket attack killed two Western colleagues in Baba Amr last week. Two of the surviving journalists remain stuck in the besieged district.

Meanwhile, Libya said it will donate $100 million in humanitarian assistance to the Syrian opposition and allow it to open an office in Tripoli. Libya's post-Gadhafi government became one of the first to recognize the Syrian National Council as the legitimate authority in Syria last year.

The U.N. says more than 7,500 people have been killed since the revolt began last March. Syrian officials blame the uprising on foreign-backed armed “terrorists” whom the government says have killed more than 2,000 security personnel.