UPDATE 4-Aid workers find Baba Amr empty after UN Damascus talks

Wed Mar 7, 2012 3:06pm EST

* U.N. aid chief, Red Crescent enter abandoned Homs district

* Amos on trip to Syria seeking unhindered access for aid workers

* ICRC, Red Crescent gave aid to Baba Amr families in nearby village

* ICRC still operating in other troubled Syrian cities (adds details on Amos, Baba Amr families in Abel, new paras 3 and 9-10)

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA, March 7 (Reuters) - U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos and a convoy from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent were allowed into the devastated Homs district of Baba Amr on Wednesday but found that the majority of civilians had fled, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.

Amos, who was denied entry to Syria last week, was beginning a three-day mission to try to persuade Syrian authorities to grant unhindered access for aid workers to deliver life-saving assistance to civilians..

She was believed to have returned to the capital, Damascus, on Wednesday night, where she had held talks earlier in the day with Foreign Minister Walid Moualem.

An ICRC aid convoy has been unable to enter Baba Amr since arriving in Homs last Friday, a day after rebel fighters fled following nearly a month of shelling by government forces.

Activists had reported bloody reprisals by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in Baba Amr after the rebels withdrew.

A team of Syrian Arab Red Crescent aid workers who entered Baba Amr on Wednesday for the first time in 10 days found that most residents had fled.

"The Syrian Arab Red Crescent stayed inside Baba Amr for about 45 minutes. They found that most inhabitants had left Baba Amr for areas that have already been visited by the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in the past week," ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan told Reuters in Geneva.

These other areas were neighbourhoods of Homs and the nearby village of Abel where ICRC and Red Crescent workers distributed aid on Wednesday, for the second time since Sunday, he said.

The teams provided assistance to 450 families in Abel on Wednesday, about 2,700 people, most of them from Babr Amr, he added. That was in addition to some 2,100 people helped earlier this week, suggesting that thousands of people have fled from Baba Amr to Abel.

Hassan, asked whether most civilians from Baba Amr are accounted for, said: "We don't have a way of knowing, but aim to continue helping people including those who have fled Baba Amr."

MEETING IN DAMASCUS

Earlier Elisabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that Amos had met Foreign Ministry officials in Damascus and was on her way to Homs, Syria's third largest city.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry confirmed Amos had held talks with Foreign Minister Moualem but gave no details.

The state news agency SANA said the minister had stressed that the country's leadership was doing its best to meet civilians' needs despite the burden of "unfair sanctions" imposed by some Arab and Western countries.

The ICRC is the only international agency allowed to deploy aid workers in Syria. They have been providing food and medical supplies since the conflict began nearly a year ago.

Red Crescent teams have evacuated 30 people needing medical attention from Baba Amr on its two previous visits, including some who were seriously wounded, according to the ICRC.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has voiced alarm at reports that government forces have executed, imprisoned and tortured people in Baba Amr.

Despite a green light received from the Syrian authorities nearly a week ago and their "daily assurances", ICRC officials have not been allowed into the neighbourhood.

"The fact remains that we have not been allowed into Baba Amr and we do not know when it will be possible," Hassan said.

Meanwhile, other areas of Syria are affected by unrest and other people need assistance, he said.

Over the past few days, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent has also distributed aid provided by the ICRC to Hama, Idlib, Deraa, rural Damascus and the eastern city of Raqqa, he said.

"The situation as we see it today is that unrest is still taking place mainly in Hama, Deraa, rural Damascus, Homs and Idlib," Hassan said.

The civilian population is reeling from the economic impact of the fighting and has seen its purchasing power shrink, he said.

"We just finished distributions in the village of Abel for the second time. It was mainly food, blankets and baby milk," Hassan said.

Profile on Amos: (Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

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