WRAPUP 3-Red Cross to aid shattered Syria rebel area

Fri Mar 2, 2012 4:45am EST

* Red Cross to enter key Homs district of Baba Amro

* Syrian forces overrun Baba Amro after 26-day siege

* Russia, China express "deep disappointment" at Syria

* French journalists escape from Homs

By Samia Nakhoul

BEIRUT, March 2 (Reuters) - The Red Cross said it would bring aid to the shattered former Syrian opposition enclave of Baba Amro on Friday, after government forces pushed out rebels in a victory for President Bashar al-Assad's campaign to crush a year-long uprising.

A Syrian official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates declared that the Syrian army "cleansed Baba Amro from the foreign-backed armed groups of terrorists."

The residential district became a symbol of opposition resistance to Assad after government troops surrounded it with tanks and artillery and shelled it intensively for weeks, killing and wounding civilians cowering in its ruined buildings.

As rebels withdrew on Thursday from Baba Amro, the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) warned of a "massacre" in the district.

Activists said Syria's army had begun hunting down and killing insurgents who had stayed to cover their comrades' "tactical retreat", although the reports could not be verified.

One pro-government figure said troops had "broken the back" of the uprising and the rebel withdrawal heralded impending victory over what he termed a Western-backed insurgency.

In Beirut, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said Syrian authorities had agreed that the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the ICRC could enter Baba Amro to evacuate casualties and to take food and medicine to civilians trapped by the fighting and siege.

"We have positive indications from the Syrian authorities to go in. We are ready to enter Baba Amro to evacuate first the sick and wounded and to take food and medical supplies," Samar al-Kadi, ICRC spokeswoman in Beirut, told Reuters.

The ICRC later said a convoy of seven trucks were on their way in snowy conditions from the Syrian capital Damascus to Homs and hoped to arrive within an hour.

The rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) said on Thursday it was leaving the district -- normally home to 100,000 residents -- in what it termed a "tactical withdrawal". Only a few thousand remain in Baba Amro.

Conditions in the heavily bombarded district are hellish. TV footage showed heavy snow and freezing weather, with residents lacking electricity or fuel for heating. There is also a shortage of food and medical supplies.

Barely a building has escaped damage from artillery shelling and many are pock-marked with bullet holes.

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In a rare show of unity with Western powers, Russia and China joined other Security Council members at the United Nations in expressing "deep disappointment" at Syria's failure to allow the U.N. humanitarian aid chief Valerie Amos to visit the country, and urged that she be allowed in immediately.

It was the first statement on Syria from the council, which has been deadlocked on the issue, since August last year. But it was not immediately clear how far Moscow and Beijing -- hitherto Assad supporters -- had shifted their position.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin appeared to distance himself further from Assad in an interview with a group of European editors, saying he had no special relationship with the president.

"It is up to the Syrians to decide who should run their country ... We need to make sure they stop killing each other," the London Times quoted Putin as saying on Friday.

As news of the opposition pull-out from Baba Amro spread, video footage released on the internet appeared to show the bodies of American journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik being buried in Homs, where they were killed in shelling eight days ago.

The Syrian official said the corpses of Colvin and Ochlik were found by the Syrian authorities.

French journalists Edith Bouvier, who was wounded in the same bombardment, and William Daniels arrived in Lebanon on Thursday, France's President Nicolas Sarkozy said, the last of a handful of reporters trapped in the city.

Armed rebels and defecting soldiers have been spearheading the revolt against Assad that began with largely peaceful protests inspired by the Arab Spring, but escalated after a bloody government crackdown.

According to activists, at least 17 rebels were killed with knives after they were chased into nearby fields.

SCENTING VICTORY

As the drama unfolded in Homs, 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 television.

A Lebanese official close to Damascus said Assad's government was determined to regain control of Homs, Syria's third city, which straddles the main north-south highway.

"They want to take it, whatever happens, without restraint, whatever the cost," the official said, asking not to be named.

He said defeat for the rebels in Homs would leave the opposition without any major stronghold in Syria, easing the crisis for Assad, who remained confident he could survive.

President Assad, a London-trained eye doctor, is increasingly isolated internationally in his struggle to crush the armed insurrection.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul told Reuters on Thursday that Russia and Iran would soon realise they had little choice but to join international diplomatic efforts for Assad's removal.

"I think in time Russia will see its support has been abused by the Syrian regime. They will recognise this fact when they see the heavy weapons being used against the people in Syria. That is not very tolerable, not even for Russia," he said.

The United Nations says Syrian security forces have killed more than 7,500 civilians since the revolt began last March. Syria's government said in December that "armed terrorists" had killed more than 2,000 soldiers and police during the unrest. (Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, Mariam Karouny, Dominic Evans, Oliver Holmes and Laila Bassam in Beirut, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Steve Gutterman in Moscow and Nour Merza in Dubai; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

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