Syrian forces pound Homs, block aid convoy

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian forces renewed their bombardment of parts of the shattered city of Homs yesterday and for a second day blocked Red Cross aid meant for civilians stranded without food and fuel in the former rebel stronghold, activists and aid workers said.

The government assault came a day after UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he had received “grisly reports” that President Bashar al-Assad’s troops were executing and torturing people in the city after rebels abandoned their positions there.

“In an act of pure revenge, Assad’s army has been firing mortar rounds and … machine guns since this morning at Jobar,” said the Syrian Network for Human Rights, naming a district next to Baba Amro, where rebels held out against almost a month of siege and shelling before fleeing this week.

“We have no immediate reports of casualties because of the difficulty of communications,” the campaign group said in a statement.

Syria’s government says it is fighting foreign-backed “terrorists” whom it blames for killing hundreds of soldiers and police across the country.

The United Nations says Syrian security forces have killed more than 7,500 civilians since a revolt against Assad’s rule began in March last year.

Concern was mounting for civilians in freezing conditions in Baba Amro, where International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) trucks were being held up by Assad’s forces.

Anti-government activists said they feared troops wanted to prevent the ICRC witnessing a reported massacre of rebels in Baba Amro, which had become a symbol of the year-long uprising.

A Damascus-based ICRC spokesman said Syrian authorities had given the convoy permission to enter but government forces on the ground had stopped the trucks because of what they said were unsafe conditions, including “mines and booby traps”.

“There has been fighting there for at least a month. The situation cannot be good. They will need food, it’s cold, they will need blankets. And there are injured there that need to be evacuated immediately,” Saleh Dabbakeh told Reuters.

Syrian state television broadcast interviews with unnamed civilians in what it said was the stricken district, against a backdrop of empty streets, some with heavy conflict damage.

“Anyone who went out on the street was kidnapped or slaughtered. We called for the army to come in. God bless the army, they saved us from the armed terrorist gangs,” said one interviewee, referring to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels.

The outside world has proved powerless to halt the killing in Syria, where repression of initially peaceful protests against Assad’s rule has spawned an armed insurrection by army deserters and others.

Russia and China have twice vetoed council resolutions that would have condemned Damascus, accusing Western and Arab nations of pushing for Libya-style “regime change” in Syria.

China urged both Damascus and the rebels to end the violence immediately and start talks, but again said it opposed any foreign military intervention in Syria.

“We oppose anyone interfering in Syria’s internal affairs under the pretext of ‘humanitarian’ issues,” said a foreign ministry statement carried by Xinhua news agency early today Beijing time and monitored in London.

Former Syrian ally Turkey said Assad was committing “war crimes” and condemned Syria for blocking aid to Baba Amro. “The Syrian regime is committing a crime against humanity every day,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said his government was again seeking to have the UN Security Council tackle the Syrian crisis.

“This means working with other countries such as Russia and China that have blocked previous initiatives,” he told Sky News.

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