Syrian forces continue shelling rebel stronghold

Soldiers loyal to President Assad have been bombarding Homs, a prominent rebel stronghold, despite Red Cross appeals.

By , The Associated Press

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    A satellite image of Homs, the subject of an intense monthlong siege by Syrian forces trying to dislodge the rebels based there.
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Syrian forces renewed their bombardment Saturday of rebellious areas of Homs, activists said, as the Red Cross vowed to try again to reach thousands of people stranded in a district overrun by regime troops after a monthlong siege.

Conditions in the western neighborhood of Baba Amr have been described as catastrophic, with extended power outages, shortages of food and water, and no medical care for the sick and wounded.

Syrian government forces took control of the neighborhood Thursday after rebels fled the district under constant bombardment that activists said killed hundreds of people since early February.

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The Syrian regime has said it was fighting "armed gangs" in Baba Amr, and has vowed to "cleanse" the neighborhood.

The Red Cross said it had received permission from President Bashar Assad's government to enter Baba Amr. A convoy of seven trucks with 15 tons of humanitarian aid including food, medical supplies and blankets left Damascus on Friday, taking several hours in heavy snowfall to reach Homs.

But once they neared Baba Amr, the government prevented them from entering.

"We are still in negotiations to enter Baba Amr," ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan said Saturday in Geneva.

The Syrians said they were not letting the Red Cross into Baba Amr because of safety concerns, including land mines, Hassan said, adding the organization had not been able to verify the danger. The government has not offered its explanation for revoking the permission.

"It's important that we get in today," Hassan said. "We are not about to give up."

Other areas in Homs, Syria's third-largest city with about 1 million people, came under heavy shelling Saturday, including areas where many of Baba Amr's residents had fled. The Local Coordination Committees activist network said mortars slammed into the districts of Khaldiyeh, Bab Sbaa and Khader.

Abu Hassan al-Homsi, a doctor at a makeshift clinic in Khaldiyeh district of Homs, said he treated a dozen people who were wounded, most lightly.

"This has become routine, the mortars start falling early in the morning," he said. Several homes were damaged from the morning shelling, which he described as steady but intermittent.

Another Khaldiyeh resident who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals said the district has been without water and heating fuel for a week, amid freezing temperatures.

"We are collecting rain and snow water, and cutting trees to burn to warm ourselves," he said.

In Damascus, Red Crescent officials handed over to embassy officials the bodies of two foreign journalists who were killed in shelling while trapped inside Baba Amr.

French Ambassador Eric Chevallier received the body of French photographer Remi Ochlik, and a Polish diplomat received the remains of American Marie Colvin. U.S. interests in Syria are represented by Poland.

Both journalists had sneaked into Syria illegally to try to get an eyewitness view of the government crackdown in the country. They died on Feb. 22 in shelling that also wounded Edith Bouvier of the daily Le Figaro and British photographer Paul Conroy.

Turkey's foreign minister said a lack of international consensus over Syria is emboldening the government there to proceed with its crackdown.

Ahmet Davutoglu said the scale of the killing matches the bloodshed in the Balkans wars of the 1990s, and described the Syrian regime's actions as a "crime against humanity."

Davutoglu spoke Saturday at a joint news conference with his Italian counterpart, Giulio Terzi.

Both ministers criticized Syria for blocking the Red Cross convoy.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Syria to give humanitarian workers immediate access to people who desperately need aid.

"The images which we have seen in Syria are atrocious," said Ban. "It's totally unacceptable, intolerable. How, as a human being, can you bear this situation?"

In other violence Saturday, a suicide car bomb exploded in Daraa, killing at least two people and wounding 20, activists said. The state-run news agency said the blast occurred at a roundabout in an area known as Daraa al-Balad and said there were casualties including civilians and security forces.

It blamed "terrorists" for the attack. But residents taking part in the funeral of the two on Saturday blamed the regime. "They were killed by an explosion prepared by the Assad gang," a banner read.

During the funeral procession, which was shown live online, a crowd of people cried: "Death rather than humiliation," and "We will take our revenge from Maher and Bashar," a reference to Bashar Assad's younger brother Maher, who is believed to be leading the crackdown against the opposition.

Daraa is the birthplace of the nearly year-old uprising against Assad. The revolt has killed more than 7,500 people, according to the most recent U.N. estimate.

Syria has seen a string of suicide bombings, the last on Feb. 10, when twin blasts struck security compounds in the government stronghold city of Aleppo, killing 28 people and bringing significant violence for the first time to the city.

The capital Damascus, another Assad stronghold, has seen three suicide bombings in the past two months.

The regime has touted the attacks as proof that it is being targeted by "terrorists." The opposition accuses forces loyal to the government of being behind the bombings to tarnish the uprising.

Saturday's bombing in Daraa marked the first time a suicide bombing struck an opposition stronghold.

Clashes also were reported in the village of Hirak in Daraa province, and in the northern Idlib province. The Local Coordination Committees said 20 people were killed across Syria Monday, in addition to the two in the Daraa bombing.

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