‘We simply couldn’t stay there any more’ – rebel forces leave Baba AmrBy
Unconfirmed reports of revenge atrocities after Assad troops retake Homs suburb in wake of outgunned FSA’s withdrawal
It took nearly four weeks of merciless bombardment. But by Thursday afternoon Syrian government forces were finally in control of the defiant rebel suburb of Baba Amr, following the tactical withdrawal of hopelessly outgunned fighters from the Free Syrian Army.
For the first time in days the shellfire and mortar attacks ceased. Instead, according to residents, army troops began a long-anticipated ground invasion of Baba Amr – a suburb of Homs, and symbol of defiance for so long against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Initially the troops encountered resistance, but infantry soldiers, supported by tanks and armoured vehicles, penetrated into the heart of the rebel-held territory – a warren of wrecked buildings, their upper storeys mangled and destroyed. Speaking via satellite phone, Omar al-Homsi, an officer in the FSA who escaped Baba Amr on Thursday, told the Guardian the rebels had left because the humanitarian situation was “utterly miserable”.
“All the routes we could use to provide the city with food and medication were completely cut off. We simply couldn’t stay there any more,” he said.
Homsi said the FSA had done its best to evacuate as many civilians as possible. “We are worried that if the Syrian army penetrate into Baba Amr they will take revenge on the civilians for giving shelter to the Free Syrian Army,” he said.
Against an unscrupulous enemy equipped with tanks, artillery, helicopters and reconnaissance drones, the FSA held out as long as possible, he said. The FSA had fought back with a captured tank, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. “But by the end we ran out of ammunition. We were under siege for 27 days. We used everything we had. We couldn’t continue fighting any more.”
After seizing the shattered suburb, Syrian troops began so-called “mopping-up” operations – moving from ruined building to ruined building in search of rebel fighters, residents said. The sweep continued all day.
There were reports – impossible to verify – of revenge atrocities by Syrian security forces: 17 people apparently beheaded, or partially beheaded, in a farming area on the outskirts of Baba Amr. Six of those slaughtered were said to be from the Sabouh family. Their names were posted on the internet in Arabic.
Other FSA sources said “hundreds of bodies of the dead and injured” lay amid the rubble. A photo posted by El Mundo reporter Javier Espinosa – who survived the attack that killed the Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Rémi Ochlik – showed gutters running red with blood.
Speaking to the Guardian, Homsi said house to house searches were being conducted by infantry soldiers carrying light weapons “like Kalashnikovs”, but backed up by tanks.
“You can say that Baba Amr now is almost empty. There are just a few civilians left. Most of the people still inside are in the centre of the city. They didn’t leave because they didn’t have a safe place to go to. They were stuck.” Speaking on Thursday morning, he conceded: “The fall of Baba Amr will be very soon.”
Residents said the humanitarian situation inside Homs was terrible, with no power, little food and scant water. The electricity in Baba Amr was cut on 5 February; other parts of the city have been making do with a couple of hours a day. On Wednesday the weather turned bitterly cold. Large snowflakes fell from the sky. Video footage shows locals, shouting to each other, their voices echoing from street to balcony, putting out bowls to catch the snow: the only source of water.
And yet despite the defeat, opposition activist Basil Fouad, who escaped from Baba Amr on Thursday, moving to another part of Homs, struck a note of defiance. He said the FSA would be back soon, adding: “They will not leave the city to fall into the hands of the Syrian army.” Heavy fighting in Homs city was continuing, he said.
He said Baba Amr was a scene of devastation, with most residential compounds struck by “two or three rockets”. These houses were now uninhabitable, he said: “I mean you cannot live in these houses any more.” A sweep operation was going on: “Now, the Syrian army is raiding the houses looking for men to detain in the Hay al-Insha’at area.
“Tanks are still shelling the city though there is no confrontation with FSA, just because they are terrified of any ambush that might be set up by the FSA.”
He added: “We spend most of the day looking for water from one house to another, most of the water tanks have been shelled. So we are looking for any house that might still have some water. If we can’t find any we break into shops and drink any tins of juice we might find.” There was virtually no bread, and no vegetables; residents were surviving on food tins, he said.
Walled Faris, speaking on Thursday evening from Hay al-Khalidyia, described his neighbourhood as “cautiously quiet”. “Half an hour ago, a few mortars fell here. Power is off for 20 days so far. I’m relying on my car battery and some lines I get from neighbours to have some power. Mobiles and landlines are cut. Water is cut for four days. Sometimes water comes but most of the time we don’t get it.”
He said residents were planning to demonstrate on Thursday night and Friday, and that the FSA was needed to protect the protests. “We had six or seven explosions today. Some of the bombs hit shops and houses. One of my friends was cut into two pieces the day before yesterday because of shelling. There are more than 70,000-75,000 people in Hay Al-Khaldiyia; some of them came from other districts like Hay Al-Zeer, thinking that Khalidiyia is safer; others went to Al-Wa’aer district.”
One activist, Sami, speaking via Skype from the Insha’at area of Homs, just over a mile north of Baba Amr, said the uprising would continue. “It will not stop the uprising. There will be a new centre of the revolution and the Free Syrian Army,” he predicted.
In a statement posted on Facebook, the FSA confirmed its tactical withdrawal from Baba Amr. The opposition fighters had left in the face of a relentless government onslaught involving “missiles from multiple rocket launchers, helicopters that have attacked from the skies, and tank shelling using 120ml rounds”.
It urged the Red Cross to immediately enter the district.
The statement continued: “We warn the Assad regime against any reaction that will target civilians and we place full responsibility on the regime for the safety of the civilians who are caught in the middle of this.”
It concluded: “We warn, any action by the regime that crosses the limits and affects civilians will see a severe response from our side. We promise you, the people of Syria, Baba Amr will remain the eye and heart of this revolution until we gain full victory. Whatever the price we have to pay and whatever we have to give up … we are returning stronger, god willing.”
from Luke Harding, Mona Mahmood, Matthew Weaver