Syrian Rebels Retreat From Besieged Homs Stronghold

Posted March 1st, 2012 at 6:00 pm (UTC-5)
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Syrian rebel fighters say they have pulled out of the besieged Baba Amr district of Homs after a punishing, monthlong military assault by President Bashar al-Assad's security forces.

Calling themselves the Baba Amr Revolutionary Brigades, the rebels Thursday said they are leaving to spare some 4,000 civilians who have insisted on remaining in their homes. They said the “tactical retreat” reflected “worsening humanitarian conditions, a lack of food, medicine and water, electricity and communication cuts as well as shortages in weapons.”

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said two French journalists who were trapped in Baba Amr for days have been evacuated to safety in neighboring Lebanon. Speaking on a visit to Brussels, Mr. Sarkozy said he had a phone conversation with freelance reporter Edith Bouvier and was arranging for a government plane to bring her and photographer Williams Daniels back to France.

Bouvier suffered serious leg wounds when government shelling struck a makeshift media center where she and other Western journalists were sheltering in Baba Amr last week. The attack killed two of her counterparts. Bouvier and Daniels had sneaked into Syria on assignment with the French newspaper Le Figaro. They were the last of the surviving journalists to escape the district.

The U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a statement “deploring” what it called the “rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation” in areas affected by violence linked to Syria's year-long uprising against Mr. Assad's autocratic rule.

The Council also expressed “disappointment” that Syria has not allowed U.N. humanitarian coordinator Valerie Amos to visit the country despite repeated requests and intense diplomacy. The statement called on the Assad government to grant Amos and humanitarian workers “immediate and unhindered access” to all people affected by food shortages and a lack of medical care.

Syria's foreign ministry said it is willing to discuss a date for Amos to visit.

The Security Council statement is the world body's first action on the Syrian crisis. Council members Russia and China have twice vetoed resolutions that would have condemned the Syrian government for its deadly crackdown on the revolt.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights in London Thursday said pro-Assad forces moved into Baba Amr neighborhoods and started a campaign of raids and arrests, killing at least 17 people. Casualties could not be independently confirmed.

In a statement, the Baba Amr rebels urged aid workers to bring humanitarian supplies into the battered area and warned the government that “any retaliation against civilians would see a severe response” from opposition forces.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said Syrian authorities agreed to grant aid workers access to Baba Amr on Friday for the purpose of delivering food and medical supplies and evacuating the wounded. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the entry of aid workers into the district would be a “good step forward,” but she said Washington is skeptical of Syrian government promises.

An activist in Homs told VOA the rebel retreat does not indicate “surrender,” but the fact that opposition forces “ran out of ammunition.” He said the resistance will continue in a new form, but he did not disclose details.

In Paris, Syria's main exiled opposition group, the Syrian National Council, said it has formed a military council to unify armed resistance against Mr. Assad. Council head Burhan Ghalioun said the move was coordinated with the Free Syrian Army and will help channel arms from outside countries to the rebels. He did not say who will supply the weapons, but Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait have called for arming the Syrian rebels.

The United Nations' top human rights body condemned what it called “widespread and systematic violations of human rights” by the Syrian government and it reiterated an urgent need to address the humanitarian situation in the country.

The U.N. Human Rights Council adopted a nonbinding resolution Thursday in Geneva calling on Mr. Assad's government to immediately halt “all human rights violations” and attacks against civilians. Russia, China and Cuba voted against the measure. Moscow said the resolution was an example of “a one-sided politicized approach” to the situation in Syria.

Britain said Thursday it has withdrawn all of its diplomatic personnel from Syria because of security concerns, and the Swiss government said it has temporarily closed its embassy in Damascus “for security reasons.” Switzerland recalled its ambassador 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” who, the government says, have killed more than 2,000 security personnel.