Red Cross evacuates bodies of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, but warns refusal of aid risks humanitarian crisis in Homs
Syrian authorities have blocked the Red Cross from entering the Baba Amr district of the city of Homs, where civilians have endured days of fierce fighting, amid reports that soldiers and armed gangs have been carrying out atrocities in the suburb since it fell to the government on Thursday.
Despite receiving permission from the government to send a convoy with seven truckloads of aid into Baba Amr, the Red Cross was prevented from entering the neighbourhood, an action it described as “unacceptable”.
The refusal to allow the convoy in to treat and evacuate the wounded came as the organisation announced that the Syrian authorities had handed over the bodies of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, who were killed in an attack on a press centre in Baba Amr over a week ago.
“We have the bodies of two journalists, Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik. They are being taken by ambulance of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, accompanied by the ICRC, and are heading to Damascus,” chief spokeswoman Carla Haddad told Reuters in Geneva. “They were handed over in Homs by the Syrian authorities.”
The French journalist Edith Bouvier, who was badly wounded in the same attack, arrived back in France on Friday with her colleague William Daniels.
The Commenting on the halting of the convoy, Red Cross president, Jakob Kellenberger, said: “It is unacceptable that people who have been in need of emergency assistance for weeks have still not received any help.
“We are staying in Homs tonight in the hope of entering Baba Amr in the very near future. In addition, many families have fled Baba Amr, and we will help them as soon as we possibly can.
“We reiterate the appeal we made several days ago, for a daily two-hour halt in the fighting to allow humanitarian assistance,” added Kellenberger. “The humanitarian situation was very serious then and it is worse now.”
The Red Cross had hoped to bring urgent medical and food aid to civilians trapped in Baba Amr after fighters with the Free Syrian Army announced on Thursday that they were withdrawing from their positions.
Reports from other opposition-held neighbourhoods in the city of one million suggested that fighters may also have pulled back from their positions there.
Anti-Assad activists have accused Syrian troops of burning houses, arresting all males over the age of 12 and of extrajudicial killings, including the alleged beheadings of 17 men captured after the suburb’s fall.
Bassel Fouad, a Syrian activist who fled to Lebanon from Baba Amr two days ago, said a colleague there told him that troops and pro-government gunmen known as shabiha were conducting house-to-house raids. “The situation is worse than terrible inside Baba Amr,” he said. “Shabiha are entering homes and setting them on fire.”
His colleague said the gunmen lined 10 men up early on Friday and shot them dead outside a government co-operative that sells subsidised food. He said Syrian forces were detaining anyone over the age of 14 in the three-storey building. “They begin at the start of a street and enter and search house after house,” he said. “Then they start with another street.”
None of his claims could be independently verified.
“There’s no resistance here,” one activist in the northern neighbourhood of Khalidiyeh told the Guardian yesterday. “There is only shelling and bombing.”
The situation in Baba Amr itself was described by an onlooker. “Today the Syrian army are in control. There are a lot of wounded who could not flee. The Syrian army is firing against anything they can find in front of them. They are arresting any young men they find.”
In other parts of the city, such as Khalidiyeh, residents said the fighters who remained were low on ammunition: “We have members of the FSA here, but they have a small amount of ammunition and they are trying to use every bullet against the right target.” He accused the army of murdering a family in Baba Amr, and added: “The Syrian army are arresting any man they find from 14 years upwards.”
Syria has faced mounting international criticism over its bloody crackdown on the uprising, which started with peaceful protests but has become increasingly militarised. The UN has estimated that more than 7,500 people have been killed in the past year. Activists put the death toll at over 8,000.
France said on Friday it is closing its embassy in Syria. The US and Britain have already closed their embassies.
French president Nicolas Sarkozy called the events in Syria a “scandal”, adding that the European Council “condemned in the harshest terms what is happening in Syria”.
Ambassador Eric Chevallier had only recently returned to Damascus after being recalled to Paris for consultations. He was sent back to help try to get Bouvier and Daniels out of Syria.
The west has stepped up its criticism of Assad’s regime amid mounting reports of atrocities by security forces. The US has called for Assad to step down and Hillary Clinton has said he could be considered a war criminal.
Russia’s prime minister Vladimir Putin criticised the west on Friday for backing the Syrian opposition against the government, saying it had fuelled the conflict.
But his foreign ministry made it clear it will not be able to stop other countries from launching a military intervention if they try to do so without UN approval.
Putin called for both Syrian government and opposition forces to pull out of besieged cities to end the bloodshed, adding that western refusal to make that demand of Assad’s opponents has encouraged them to keep fighting. “Do they want Assad to pull out his forces so the opposition moves right in?” he said at a meeting with editors of western newspapers in remarks carried by state television. “Is it a balanced approach?”
Activist groups said protesters who took to the streets in towns across Syria on Friday were met with teargas, gunfire and mass arrests. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 10 people were killed in the town of Rastan near Homs when a mortar landed near marchers. The Local Co-ordination Committees of Syria said 16 were killed in the same event, among 52 reported dead nationwide.
Protesters dubbed Friday the day of “Arming the Free Syrian Army”, reflecting a widening perception that only military action can stop the crackdown on dissent and hasten Assad’s downfall.
from Peter Beaumont, Mona Mahmood