Up to 2,000 refugees reach border, but fate of thousands unknown as Red Cross still denied access to Baba Amr
Lebanon is bracing itself for a new influx of Syrian refugees after up to 2,000 people fleeing the military onslaught in Homs were reported to be trying to reach the country’s northern border.
“Between one and two thousand [Syrians] are in the process of coming from Syria to Lebanon,” the UNHCR’s deputy representative in Lebanon, Jean Paul Cavalieri, told Reuters. “This is what we are hearing from our teams on the ground and local authorities.”
The exodus from Syria’s third city has intensified since loyalist forces ousted the opposition Free Syria Army from the Baba Amr neighbourhood on Friday. There is little information about the fate of up to 20,000 residents thought to be there when the siege began four weeks ago.
For the third day running, the International Committee for the Red Cross was denied access to Baba Amr despite earlier assurances that it could deliver aid to residents trapped in the fighting.
A seven-truck ICRC convoy has been waiting since Friday to enter Baba Amr, with local military authorities saying aid officials were being kept out for their own safety because of the presence of bombs and landmines, which they allege were left by opposition forces.
Activists and Free Syria Army officials vehemently deny having booby-trapped the area and say the regime has concocted a ruse to hide its activities there.
The lack of access has drawn international condemnation, with Turkey and Britain accusing Damascus of committing grave crimes in the rebel-held neighbourhood. Prime minister David Cameron on Friday called for Mr Assad to “face a day of reckoning” in the wake of the relentless crackdown on dissent that started a year ago.
Opposition activists who were forced to flee the regime’s assault have accused security forces of conducting summary executions of men and boys over the age of 14 over the last three days. The claims cannot be substantiated, as the neighbourhood that for months had become a rebel stronghold has now lost all connections to the outside.
The ICRC said it had been able to provide aid to the refugees who had made it to other parts of Homs, especially in the village of Abel, three kilometres away, where many refugees have fled. The global relief organisation said the needs in Abel and two other districts of Homs, Inshant and Tawzii, were “considerable”. It has primarily been distributing food, baby milk, blankets and hygiene products.
The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Sunday that the true picture of the refugee situation in Homs will only become clear in the coming days.
The Wadi Khaled region of Lebanon’s far north had until late last year been an escape route for scores of families and defectors who had fled the deteriorating situation in Homs, lying only 50km northeast of the border.
However, regime forces laid land mines and began aggressively patrolling the area in November, closing off most exits. Those fleeing Homs have few other options, apart from a dangerous journey south to Lebanon’s Bekaa valley through land that is contested by the Free Syria Army and the Syrian military. A Syrian man who spoke to the Guardian said a small number of people had crossed into the Bekaa valley after walking for more than a day from near Homs.
The Bekaa is viewed by the refugees, who are almost all Sunni Muslims, as a less appealing option, because it is a stronghold of Shia Muslims, many of whom are aligned with the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.
Meanwhile, the United Nations’ commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has again warned that supplying weapons to Syrian rebels will worsen the situation in the country, where more than 7,500 people have died in a year long uprising that shows few signs of losing steam.
“Any kind of provision of military equipment to the opposition, in my view, will escalate the violence and not lead to the goal we are trying to achieve,” said Pillay. “I think that countries should be focusing their energy on achieving a peaceful resolution here, and to ensure that the root causes are addressed.”
Qatar and Saudi Arabia have both endorsed the supply of weapons to opposition fighters, who are a mix of military deserters and citizens who have taken up arms. However, the US and Europe have shown no appetite for running guns to irregular forces, perhaps because they believe the rebels have little hope of defeating the Syrian army militarily.
Chastened by the Iraq war and wary of overtly backing another rebel militia after Libya, the US has instead imposed a series of sanctions against Syrian officials and has tried to muster support for a UN resolution that lays the groundwork for Assad to leave.
But even two watered-down versions, which did not demand Assad’s exit, have been vetoed by Syria’s allies, Russia and China, who have shown no sign that their support for Assad regime is wavering.
“There is no viable option at this point but to keep the pressure on diplomatically and economically,” one western official said. “The military option is not flying, as tempting as it may be.”
Meanwhile, pro- and anti-Assad rallies paralysed central Beirut on Sunday. Tensions have been simmering in the Lebanese capital, which has been under Syrian tutelage since its civil war. The tribulations of its restive neighbour are playing out in Lebanon’s brittle political scene and there are mounting fears that a crumbling power base in Damascus would have a dire effect on Lebanese society.
There were no reports of violence at rallies, with the two sides separated by barbed wire and a large military presence.
from Martin Chulov