Mar
08

Homs devastation shocks UN humanitarian chief

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Lady Amos visits Baba Amr suburb of Syrian city after government forces’ month-long assault

The United Nations humanitarian chief, Lady Amos, said she was shocked by the devastation she witnessed on a visit to Baba Amr, the suburb of the Syrian city of Homs that has suffered a month-long siege.

Amos, who visited Baba Amr on Wednesday for 45 minutes, “The devastation there is significant,” she said. ” Part of Homs is completely destroyed and I am concerned to know what has happened to the people who live in that part of the city.”

Amos is the first senior international figure to visit Baba Amr since the Syrian government launched an assault against its opponents. Her visit comes on the eve of the mission to Syria by Kofi Annan, the joint UN and Arab League envoy who will also raise international concerns about the escalating bloodshed.

Rebel fighters fled Homs a week ago after nearly a month of shelling by government forces.

Annan said he would call for a ceasefire and the opening of negotiations for a political transition when he arrives in Damascus on Saturday.

Speaking in Cairo, he said: “As I move to Syria, we will do whatever we can to urge and press for a cessation of hostilities and end to the killing and violence. But, of course, ultimately the solution lies in a political settlement.

“We will be urging the government and a broad spectrum of Syrian opposition to come together to work with us to find a solution that will respect the aspirations of the Syrian people.”

His comments came as Syria’s deputy oil minister announced his defection, making himthe highest ranking official to abandon Assad’s regime since the country’s uprising erupted a year ago.

But the defection of Abdo Hussameldin, a relatively minor and unknown figure outside of Damascus, underscores the difficulties Syria’s fragmented opposition has had in persuading senior regime figures to abandon Assad.

He said he was joining the rebels because of the “brutal” crackdown on dissent that has claimed the lives of thousands of Syrians. “I join the revolution of this dignified people,” he said in a YouTube video, the authenticity of which could not be confirmed.

William Hague, the foreign secretary, said that the UK had no plans to support Syrian rebels, despite comments from the US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, who said the Obama administration was considering “an array of non-lethal assistance”.

In his evidence to the foreign affairs select committee, Hague said Britain would only continue to supply non-lethal assistance to “peaceful” opposition outside Syria. “I haven’t ruled out giving more non-lethal help,” Hague told MPs, “but we haven’t countenanced doing that beyond groups that are so far located outside Syria and are trying to pursue a peaceful democratic opposition.”

The visit by Amos came as Syrian Arab Red Crescent aid workers entered Baba Amr to find it empty of its residents.

Syrian state television broadcast footage on Thursday of UN workers in blue bulletproof vests and helmets, which the presenter said was Amos’s team in Baba Amr, taking photos of their crumbling surroundings.

Syria initially refused to grant Amos access to the country but relented after its allies Russia and China joined the rest of the UN security council in rebuking it.

Amos met the Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Moualem, on Wednesday and an aide said he told her she would be able to go anywhere in Syria she wished to.

Amos’s goal is to secure access for aid organisations, which have been barred from the heaviest conflict zones.

The UN estimates that more than 7,500 civilians have been killed in the government’s year-long crackdown on the anti-Assad uprising around the country, while the Syrian government says more than 2,000 members of the army and security forces have been killed in armed attacks.

Peter Beaumont

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