Syrian Crackdown Continues, Refugees Flee

Posted March 5th, 2012 at 8:30 pm (UTC-5)
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Syrian military forces hunted down opponents Monday in a brutal offensive against anti-government rebels following a 26-day siege in the central city of Homs. Civilians fleeing to nearby Lebanon said they feared being slaughtered in cold blood.

Activist Mulham al-Jundi accused government troops of keeping the Red Cross out of the wrecked Homs district of Baba Amr for a fourth day to hide their activities there. He said explosions could be heard in the area, indicating that houses and “important centers” were being destroyed.

Opposition figures say that after Syrian forces seized Baba Amr last week, they killed dozens of residents execution-style and burned homes in revenge attacks against those believed to be supporting the rebels.

The United Nations refugee agency said Monday that as many as 2,000 Syrians crossed into Lebanon over the last two days to flee the violence in their country. Refugees from the northern town of Qusair, in Idlib province, said government tanks shelled houses full of people. “Those who can flee, do,” one woman said. “Those who can't will die sitting down.”

Pro-Assad forces also bombed the rebellious city of Rastan, in Homs province, for a straight second day Monday. Activists say that town could be the government's next target.

In Washington, a powerful U.S. senator said the United States should lead an international effort to protect key population centers in Syria through air strikes on President Bashar al-Assad's forces.

Senator John McCain said the ultimate goal of air strikes “should be to establish and defend safe havens in Syria, especially in the north, in which opposition forces can organize and plan their political and military activities against Mr. Assad.” McCain, an influential Republican, has previously called for arming the Syrian opposition.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said aid workers in Syria reached two Homs neighborhoods near Baba Amr. ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan told VOA that a Red Cross and Syrian Arab Red Crescent convoy arrived Monday in al-Tawzii and al-Inshaat, which is adjacent to Baba Amr. He said the convoy was carrying aid for thousands of civilians, including people who fled the government bombardment.

Aid workers have been trying to enter Baba Amr itself since Friday after receiving Syrian government approval to do so.

The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch estimates the government assault on Baba Amr killed about 700 people. Rights groups say the situation in the district is dire, with residents struggling to find food, water and medical supplies in freezing temperatures. Mr. Assad has been waging a deadly crackdown on a year-long uprising against his autocratic rule.

As international condemnation mounts, the Syrian government agreed to allow in two prominent international emissaries it had previously rebuffed – former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the new special envoy to Syria, and U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos.

Annan goes to Damascus Saturday and Amos said she will arrive in the capital on Wednesday. She said she will urge “all parties” to give aid workers “unhindered access” in delivering supplies to people affected by the violence and evacuating the wounded.

China is sending its own envoy to Syria this week to work on a political solution to the unrest, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he will meet his Arab League counterparts in Cairo on Saturday to discuss the crisis. Syria's main opposition groups have rejected dialogue with Mr. Assad and said his departure is the only way to end the revolt.

The United Nations estimates that violence linked to the uprising has killed at least 7,500 people since it began last March. Syria blames the unrest on “armed terrorist groups” backed by foreign conspirators.