• Regime forces take control after month-long siege
• Reports of reprisal killings against civilians
• Free Syrian Army ‘will fight until Assad toppled’
The Syrian suburb that became the symbol of the year-long uprising against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad has fallen government forces after a bloody, month-long siege in which hundreds of people are reported to have been killed.
Amid reports that government troops were carrying out reprisal killings against civilians trapped in the snow-blanketed Homs neighbourhood, Baba Amr finally fell after Free Syrian Army fighters said they were abandoning their positions.
The few fighters and activists who remained described appalling scenes with “hundreds” of dead and wounded.
“The Free Syrian Army and all the other fighters have left Baba Amr. They pulled out,” one activist said from Homs.
The retreat followed heavy clashes around the suburb on Wednesday that took place as an unnamed Syrian official said the army intended to “cleanse” the opposition centre.
Witnesses in Homs, Syria’s third largest city with a population of a million, said on Wednesday that heavy fighting was continuing in other neighbourhoods.
Activists reported the main focus of the army’s assault was now the districts of al-Bayada and al-Khalidiyeh in the city’s north and Karm al-Zeytoun to its east.
One activist in al-Khalidiyeh told the Guardian he could see four or five tanks near his neighbourhood, which had come under fire earlier in the day. “I can see tanks in Sitteen Street and near the Jawal roundabout,” he said. “There are a lot of snipers in my neighbourhood. The shelling started several hours ago and is still continuing.” He added there had been no water in his area for four days and food was very hard to find.
As Baba Amr fell, the International Red Cross and Syrian Red Crescent said they had been given permission to enter Baba Amr on Friday to deliver food and medical assistance and evacuate the wounded.
A Red Cross spokesman said: “The ICRC received positive indicators from the Syrian authorities. It is more urgent than ever to implement our initiative of a humanitarian ceasefire … the humanitarian situation is extremely worrying.”
Baba Amr has been the focus of intense international attention in recent weeks because of the assault and because of the killing of two journalists, including Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times, who had been smuggled into the city to report on the situation there. There was no word on whether her body and that of French photographer Rémi Ochlik, killed in the same incident last week, would be recovered.
Despite the planned withdrawal, Baba Amr’s fall is a significant loss for opposition fighters who had been able to use its resistance to garner international support.
The drama in Homs unfolded without immediate comment from Syrian officials or state media, but Taleb Ibrahim, a Syrian analyst close to the government, said the military’s operation in Homs had “broken the back of the armed groups”.
“It’s the beginning of Syria’s final victory over the Qatari, Saudi, French, American and Zionist conspiracy against Syria,” he told Lebanon’s Hezbollah-run al-Manar TV.
The commander of the Free Syrian Army, Riad al-Asaad, based in Turkey, confirmed the rebel withdrawal, but said the fight would go on until Assad was toppled. “There has been a tactical withdrawal,” Asaad told al-Jazeera TV. “The Free Army has left Baba Amr because of the brutal acts of the regime against civilians.”
The day before the suburb’s fall, video posted on the internet showed large numbers of tanks and personnel carriers being ferried to the city.
A statement in the name of the fighters urged Red Cross and other humanitarian groups to enter Baba Amr and bring aid to 4,000 civilians.
“We warn the regime against any retaliation against civilians and we hold it fully responsible for their safety,” the statement said. The decision to withdraw was based on “worsening humanitarian conditions, lack of food and medicine and water, electricity and communication cuts as well as shortages in weapons”, they said.
According to activists, civilians trying to flee Baba Amr had been killed by shellfire. Other reports talked of a group of 17 civilians who were captured and “beheaded” in an area of farmland outside of Baba Amr. There was no independent confirmation of the claims.
The foreign secretary, William Hague, announced on Thursday that Britain had withdrawn all diplomatic staff from Syria and suspended services at its embassy in Damascus. Announcing the move in the Commons, Hague said: “We now judge that the deterioration of the security situation in Damascus puts our embassy staff and premises at risk, and have taken the decision to withdraw staff accordingly. Our ambassador and diplomatic staff left Syria on 29 February and will return to the UK shortly.”
The fall of Baba Amr, which had been assaulted in recent days by the Syrian army’s elite Fourth Division, which is commanded by Assad’s brother Maher, came as the Syrian National Council said in Paris that it was establishing a “military council” to funnel arms and support to the FSA’s fighters.
The creation of the military council was agreed upon by all armed forces in Syria,” said SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun. “We will be like a defence ministry.”
Russia and China joined other UN security council members on Thursday in expressing disappointment at Damascus’s failure to allow the UN humanitarian aid chief Valerie Amos to visit Syria.
The council’s 15 nations said in a unanimous statement that they deplored the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation in the country, where an 11-month government crackdown on pro-democracy protesters has left more than 7,500 civilians dead, according to the UN.
from Peter Beaumont