Syria stops Red Cross entering Baba Amro
GENEVA (Reuters) - The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said Syrian authorities had prevented it from entering the battle-scarred Baba Amro district of Homs on Friday, where it had hoped to take in aid and evacuate the sick and wounded.
Syrian authorities handed over the bodies of two journalists killed on February 22, American Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik, it said. Their bodies were being taken from Homs to Damascus in Syrian Arab Red Crescent ambulances, ICRC chief spokeswoman Carla Haddad said.
It marked the end of a frustrating day for the independent agency, the only international humanitarian organization to deploy aid workers in Syria.
ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger, in a statement issued in Geneva, said: "It is unacceptable that people who have been in need of emergency assistance for weeks have still not received any help.
"We are staying in Homs tonight in the hope of entering Baba Amro in the very near future. In addition, many families have fled Baba Amro and we will help them as soon as we possibly can."
An ICRC convoy of 7 trucks carrying food and other aid left Damascus early on Friday for Homs, where it met local volunteers and ambulances of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, ready to treat and evacuate the sick and wounded.
The ICRC received a green light to enter Homs on Friday from Syrian authorities, hours after rebels left the heavily bombarded area after a 26-day siege aimed at crushing a symbol of the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry, in a statement issued by its embassy in London, blamed opposition forces for the delay in handing over the bodies of the journalists.
"The Syrian government has allowed for three visits now for mediators and for the Syrian Red Crescent and for the International Committee of the Red Cross to help the journalists and the bodies to exit the city, but the insurgents refused that," it said.
"Also, some of the journalists refused that because some other people were planning to help them out of the country through illegitimate ways into neighboring countries," it added, referring to wounded French journalist Edith Bouvier who was evacuated to Lebanon on Thursday.
It said Syria would "deliver on all its commitments in relation to this humanitarian issue as long as the sovereignty of Syria and its territorial integrity are ensured."
A Syrian official on Friday declared the area of Baba Amro "cleansed" and the opposition spoke of a massacre by Assad's forces.
The residential district became a symbol of 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 Syrian government forces moved in, the U.N. human rights office voiced alarm over reports suggesting former rebel areas were being subjected to reprisals.
"We are alarmed at reports starting to come out of the Baba Amro district of Homs after it was taken over by government forces yesterday (Thursday)," U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told a news briefing in Geneva.
"Although we are not, at this point, in a position to confirm any of those reports, we would like to remind the authorities of their responsibilities under international law.
"It is essential that there are no unlawful reprisals, no summary executions, no torture, no arbitrary detention. And the rights of those who are detained must be respected," he said.
As rebels withdrew 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.
Over the past week, ambulances of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent evacuated 30 people from Baba Amro, taking the most seriously wounded to hospitals in Homs.
The ICRC has said it does not know how many sick or wounded may need medical attention or evacuation from Baba Amro.
The United Nations has been shut out from Syria.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; additional reporting by Adrian Croft in London; Editing by Janet Lawrence)