Syrian forces launch ground assault on rebel bastion

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  • Thursday, March 1, 2012
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    Syria's brutal crackdown on anti-regime activists has killed more than 7,500 people in the last 11 months, the United Nations has claimed
    DAMASCUS, February 29, 2012 (AFP) - Syrian forces on Wednesday launched a ground assault on a rebel-held district of Homs after shelling it for 26 straight days, as world pressure grew for humanitarian access to besieged protest cities.
    A security source told AFP in Damascus that Baba Amr "is under control," after activists had earlier said that elite troops of the Fourth Armoured Division had taken up position around the holdout neighbourhood of Syria's third-largest city.
    "The army has started combing the area building by building and house by house. Now the troops are searching every basement and tunnel for arms and terrorists," the security source said.
    "There remain only few pockets" of resistance.
    A human rights watchdog and an activist in the central city however denied that troops had moved into Baba Amr, insisting that clashes were taking place only on the outskirts of the flashpoint neighbourhood.
    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights insisted that rebel forces were "preventing an attempt to storm" Baba Amr and that gunfire could be heard in several districts of Homs.
    Homs-based activist Hadi Abdullah reported clashes and heavy shelling of Baba Amr but insisted that ground troops had not entered the neighbourhood.
    "Regime forces did not enter Baba Amr until this moment. They are surrounding the district, while clashes are concentrated in the neighbourhoods of Inshaat and Malaab," he told AFP by telephone.
    Abdullah said activists were "evacuating families because shelling has been targeting places that were considered safe in the past."
    The arrival of the Fourth Armoured Division, which is under the command of President Bashar al-Assad's brother Maher, was a likely prelude to a final assault, he added.
    Rebel commanders said access to Homs was now completely blocked after regular troops blew up an underground aqueduct that had been the last viable route for smuggling of desperately needed supplies.
    Abdullah added that power had been cut to most of the city, a measure he said was another sign of possible looming attack.
    Efforts to bring out Le Figaro journalist Edith Bouvier, who is trapped inside Baba Amr with multiple fractures, intensified after her British colleague Paul Conroy was successfully smuggled out to Lebanon on Monday night.
    "We expect the government in Damascus to put all the conditions in place for a safe and rapid evacuation, in particular an immediate ceasefire in Baba Amr," said French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero.
    Thirteen Syrian activists were killed trying to help Bouvier and Conroy and to bring in aid to Baba Amr, international activist group Avaaz said.
    Elsewhere, a 13-year-old boy was shot dead in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, the Britain-based Observatory reported, as the group's head said that contacts with Syrian activists to get updates had become difficult.
    At the United Nations, diplomats said Washington had begun work on a new draft Security Council resolution demanding humanitarian access to besieged protest cities, such as Homs.
    "This resolution will concentrate on humanitarian access to the cities, but it will indicate that the government is the cause of the crisis," one Security Council diplomat said.
    Western nations hope that focusing on the humanitarian crisis will persuade Russia and China not to use their veto powers as permanent members of the 15-member council as they did against previous Western-drafted resolutions last October and again in early February.
    The French foreign ministry spokesman said the new text calls for a halt to violence and "immediate, unhindered access for humanitarian aid to the most threatened sites and the most vulnerable populations."
    French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said: "I solemnly appeal to Russia and China that they do not block this new resolution at the Security Council."
    Work on the new draft started after Arab and Western governments met for an inaugural Friends of Syria meeting in Tunis last week, diplomats said.
    "We really hope that by concentrating on an appeal for an end to the violence and getting humanitarian access we can get the support of everyone, including Russia and China," said one Western envoy.
    Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi has told Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi that international humanitarian aid should be allowed into Syria, Chinese state media said.
    "The international community should create favourable conditions in this regard and provide humanitarian aid to Syria," state news agency Xinhua quoted Yang as saying.
    On Tuesday, Russia had urged Syria to cooperate with the Red Cross to allow the relief agency to deliver aid.
    "It is important that the Syrian government cooperates with the International Committee of the Red Cross," said Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov.
    UN political chief B Lynn Pascoe told the Security Council "well over 7,500" people have been killed Syria since protests against Assad's regime erupted in March last year.
    Meanwhile, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem asked UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to clarify the precise objective of the mission entrusted to Kofi Annan, his predecessor who has been appointed as UN and Arab League envoy, according to ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi.


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