WRAPUP 1-Aid reaches Homs refugees, Syrians flee to border

Sun Mar 4, 2012 8:25pm EST

* Syria blocks Red Cross from Baba Amro for third day

* Shelling of border town forces flight to Lebanon

* Israel offers assistance

By Oliver Holmes and Mohammed Abbas

BEIRUT, March 5 (Reuters) - The Red Cross managed to get aid to Syrians fleeing fighting in the battered Baba Amro district of Homs, but was blocked for a third day from entering the former rebel bastion amid reports of bloody reprisals by state forces.

Activists reported shelling and other violence across Syria on Sunday, sending one of the biggest surges of refugees across the border into Lebanon in a single day since a revolt against President Bashar al-Assad began a year ago.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it had delivered food, blankets and medicine to the village of Abel, 3 km (2 miles) from Homs, where a number of people had taken refuge, and described the development as a "positive step".

But it was again prevented from entering Baba Amro, where rebels had faced nearly a month of siege and bombardment before abandoning their positions there on Thursday.

"It's over for tonight. We will try again tomorrow," said Saleh Dabbakeh, the ICRC's Damascus-based spokesman. He declined to say why Syrian forces had blocked its entry.

Concern mounted for civilians left stranded in the district in freezing weather with little food, fuel or medicine.

Activists said the government was trying to prevent the Red Cross from witnessing "massacres" by Syrian soldiers hunting down and killing remaining rebels.

The United Nations' refugee agency said up to 2,000 Syrians had fled the fighting for neighbouring Lebanon.

"We had similar numbers in April 2011, but the flow of new arrivals had stabilised since then," United Nations refugee agency spokeswoman Dana Sleiman said.

Refugees told Reuters of army shelling and gunfire in border towns. One woman said she and her family had fled the village of Jusiyah, near Qusair, about 12 km (7 miles) from the border.

"In the morning the shelling started, so we had to leave towards Lebanon. There were some wounded, but I don't know what happened to them," said Um Ali, 64.

Lebanon deployed more troops to its northern border in response to the violence in Syrian towns nearby, a Reuters witness said.

And in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, hundreds of soldiers and scores of military trucks and jeeps blocked off the city centre during protests for and against Assad.

CONDEMNATION

The outside world has proved powerless to halt the killing in Syria, where repression of initially peaceful pro-democracy protests sparked an insurrection by army deserters and others.

The Syrian government says it is fighting foreign-backed "terrorists" it blames for killing hundreds of soldiers and police across the country.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said the Syrian government crackdown was "more shocking than the worst horror movies in Hollywood," as he offered to assist international aid efforts in his country's neighboring enemy.

Senior U.S. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham on Sunday called for arming Syria's rebels through the Arab League and suggested the imposition of "no drive" and "no fly" zones against Syrian military forces targeting the opposition.

"We need more international pressure," Graham told the TV programme "Fox News Sunday". "We need to help the rebels militarily, economically, and let Assad know that he is an international outlaw and be held accountable."

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.

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will join Arab counterparts at a meeting in Cairo this month to discuss the Syrian crisis, the Arab League said on Sunday, a move that could indicate Moscow is shifting its stance on the issue.

RAIDS, SHELLING, CLASHES

Heavy fighting broke out overnight between armoured forces loyal to Assad and rebels who launched coordinated attacks on army roadblocks across the southern city of Deraa on the border with Jordan, opposition activists said on Monday.

The reports of the fighting in Deraa, where the uprising against Assad's rule began last March, could not be independently verified.

But opposition sources say rebels had intensified assaults on loyalist targets in southern, north and eastern Syria in the last few days to relieve pressure in Homs.

Syrian state television showed images of the corpses of anti-Assad fighters killed in clashes in the suburbs of the city of Hama, as well as an array of captured weapons, including arms it said were U.S. and Israeli-made.

Activists reported government raids in Hama, and heavy shelling in the town of Rastan, north of Homs, where rebels have been hiding.

"Residents told me that shelling started early this morning shortly after helicopters and spotter planes were seen above the town," said

In a house in the Douma suburb of Damascus, an activist told Reuters by Skype that the Syrian army had killed two defectors and seven other people who had been harbouring them.

Clashes between Syrian troops and Free Syrian Army rebels, many of them army defectors, were reported in Jebel al-Zawiya in Syria's north, and activists said government forces had used tear gas to end an anti-Assad protest of around 1,000 people in the northern city of Aleppo.

Abdelrahamn also reported an attack on a Syrian army weapons depot by rebels near Homs on Saturday, killing and wounding up to 50 Syrian troops. Activists' reports are difficult to verify independently due to Syrian reporting restrictions.

The United Nations says Syrian security forces have killed more than 7,500 civilians since the revolt against the Assad family's four-decade rule began in March last year. (Additonal reporting by by Afif Diab on Lebanese border, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Ayman Samir in Cairo; Writing by Mohammed Abbas; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Myra MacDonald)

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