Syrian Rebels Retreat From Besieged Stronghold

Posted March 1st, 2012 at 12:25 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 said Thursday 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.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights in London said pro-Assad forces have moved into neighborhoods and begun a campaign of raids and arrests. Government troops reportedly killed at least 17 people in Baba Amr Thursday.

In a statement, the Baba Amr rebels urged the International Red Cross 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.

Later, the International Committee of the Red Cross said Syrian authorities had agreed to allow aid groups into Baba Amr on Friday to bring in much-needed assistance, “including food and medical aid, and to carry out evacuation operations.”

The Turkey-based commander of the Free Syrian Army, Colonel Riad al-Asaad, confirmed the rebels “have pulled out tactically in order to protect the remaining civilians” in the area, which has seen 27 straight days of heavy bombardment.

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

In Paris, Syria's main exiled opposition group, the Syrian National Council, announced 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 would help channel arms from outside countries to rebels on the ground. He did not say who might supply the weapons, but Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait have all called recently for arming the opposition.

The SNC also urged world powers to intervene to stop a “potential massacre” in Homs against “tens of thousands of children, women and elderly people.” The group accused the Fourth Armored Division, led by Mr. Assad's younger brother Maher, of conducting “barbaric operations against civilians” after it moved into Baba Amr.

Meanwhile, the United Nations' top human rights body condemned what it called “widespread and systematic violations of human rights” by the Syrian government and reiterated the “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.

It highlighted the recent deaths of Syrian and foreign journalists, as well as interference in civilian access to medical care. Russia, China and Cuba voted against the measure. Russia said the resolution text was an example of “a one-sided politicized approach” to the situation in Syria.

The U.S. envoy to the council, Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, said there is an “overwhelming international consensus” on the humanitarian crisis in Syria and that “the vote speaks for itself.”

Russia and China have twice vetoed U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning the Syrian government for its deadly crackdown on a nearly year-long opposition uprising.

Britain said Thursday it had 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 had already recalled its ambassador last year.

Syria's foreign ministry said it is willing to discuss a date for U.N. humanitarian coordinator Valerie Amos to visit. She said Wednesday Syria had rejected her repeated requests to assess the growing crisis.

Kofi Annan, the newly-appointed U.N.-Arab League joint envoy for Syria, said Wednesday he will soon travel to Syria to push President Assad to engage in dialogue with the opposition.

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.