Residents of besieged suburb of Baba Amr say they feel abandoned after failure of ‘Friends of Syria’ peace conference
The Syrian military took its bombardment of the Baba Amr district of Homs into a fourth week yesterday as the Red Cross tried to evacuate more traumatised civilians.
At least 28 people were killed on Saturday, with nine of them in Homs, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Thousands are trapped in the Baba Amr suburb.
Deploring the outcome of the international “Friends of Syria” conference in Tunisia on Friday, opposition activists and civilians in Homs said that they felt forgotten. People talked of how the world had abandoned them to be killed by the soldiers and rockets of President Bashar al-Assad.
After its ambulances had been allowed to leave the city with 27 people on Friday, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that it had resumed negotiations with both sides to enable more civilians to be brought out. There was still no sign of progress on the evacuation of the western journalists injured in the rocket attack that killed the war reporter Marie Colvin, 56, and the French photographer Rémi Ochlik, 28, on Wednesday.
The Sunday Times photographer Paul Conroy, who has shrapnel wounds in his legs, and the French reporter Edith Bouvier, who has a broken leg, remain in Homs, as do two other western journalists, Javier Espinoza from the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, and a French freelance reporter, William Daniels, who are unhurt. Efforts are continuing to get them out, along with the bodies of their colleagues. People in Homs – a city of more than 800,000 at the crossroads of highways from Damascus to Aleppo and from the coast to the interior – are suspicious of evacuations, carried out by the ICRC’s local partner, the Syrian Red Crescent.
A UK-based activist, Abdul Omar, told the BBC that people did not want to get into the ambulances. “We know that the Syrian regime has in the past used Red Crescent ambulances to pretend that they are rescue operations but they have ended up arresting individuals, arresting civilians and taking them to prison,” he said. Nadir Husseini said that people were wary of working with a group “under the control of the regime”. But the ICRC denied there was anything but a mercy mission under way with the Red Crescent vehicles, and said that there was no difference between the two groups. “Their volunteers are risking their lives on a daily basis to help everyone with no exceptions,” Hicham Hassan, an ICRC spokesman, said.
Inside Baba Amr, people are enduring desperate conditions. The injured and dying are being treated in makeshift clinics with limited supplies. The residential areas are defended by rebels calling themselves the Free Syrian Army, who have only small arms against the tank bombardments and shelling coming into the city.
The Tunis conference of Western, Arab and other countries was intended to increase diplomatic pressure on Assad to end an 11 month crackdown on opponents of his rule.
The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said Assad would be held to account for the bloodshed and sharply criticised Russia and China, which have blocked UN measures against Syria.
But to beleaguered Syrians, the speeches seemed remote. “The people resent what happened in Tunis,” said a doctor in the restive town of Zabadani. “We need them to arm the revolution. I don’t understand what they are waiting for. Do they need to see half the people of Syria finished off first?”
Diplomacy is hamstrung because Russia and China oppose action by the UN Security Council, and there is little appetite for military intervention – although Saudi Arabia has suggested it might arm the rebels, a move that prompted an angry reaction from Damascus yesterday, which accused the Saudis of being “partners” in the bloodshed.
Despite international condemnation of his rule, Assad is due to stage a referendum today on a new constitution that he says will lead to a multi-party parliamentary election within three months. The opposition has called for a boycott of the vote, deriding his reform pledges and demanding again that he step down. Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Saturday also questioned how the vote could take place.
“On one hand you say you are holding a referendum and on the other you are attacking with tank fire on civilian areas. You still think the people will go to a referendum the next day in the same city?” he asked.
Davutoglu, whose country has turned strongly against its former ally, said that Syria should accept an Arab league plan that urges Assad to step down. He did not repeat earlier suggestions that Turkey was ready to intervene militarily.
In Baba Amr, Husseini said that he had “lost faith in everyone but God”, but the uprising would go on. “The shelling is just like it was yesterday. We have had 22 days of this. The women and children are all hiding in basements,” he said. “No one would dare try to flee the neighbourhood; that is instant death. You’d have to get past snipers and soldiers. Then there is a trench that surrounds our neighbourhood and a few others. Then you have to go past more troops.”
from Tracy McVeigh