U.N. aid chief visits Syria's stricken Baba Amr area
AMMAN (Reuters) - The U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos accompanied a Syrian Arab Red Crescent team on Wednesday into a former rebel-held district of Homs where dissidents have reported bloody reprisals by President Bashar al-Assad's forces.
"She went in with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to Baba Amr," an International Committee of the Red Cross spokesman said.
The Red Crescent team found that most residents had fled the district, where rebels had resisted a 26-day army siege until March 1, ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan said in Geneva.
Amos, who was denied entry to Syria last week, is on a three-day mission to persuade authorities to grant unfettered access for aid workers to needy civilians caught up in violence.
An ICRC convoy has been unable to enter Baba Amr since arriving in Homs Friday, a day after the district fell.
"The Syrian Arab Red Crescent stayed inside Baba Amr for about 45 minutes. They found that most inhabitants had left Baba Amr to areas that have been already visited by the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in the past week," Hassan said.
The long delay in securing access for relief agencies trying to deliver supplies and evacuate the wounded has fuelled international concern about the fate of survivors in Baba Amr.
In the latest of several accounts of killings and other abuses, local activist Mohammed al-Homsi said troops and pro-Assad militiamen had stabbed to death seven males, including a 10-year-old, from one family Tuesday. "Their bodies were dumped in farmland next to Baba Amr," he told Reuters.
Syrian media curbs make it hard to verify such reports.
Amos went to Homs after seeing Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem in Damascus. He told her Syria was trying to meet the needs of all citizens despite the burdens imposed by "unfair" Western and Arab sanctions, the state news agency SANA said.
Syria's military pursued its crackdown on opponents of Assad elsewhere. Activists said tanks shelled Rastan, a town north of Homs. Troops staged raids in Qara and Yabroud north of Damascus, in the cities of Deir al-Zor and Aleppo, and in Hama province.
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President Barack Obama said it was only a matter of time before Assad left office, but he opposed a call by a senior U.S. senator for American-led military action to force him out.
The world has found no way to halt a year of bloodshed since many Syrians rose against Assad in what has proved one of the longest and bloodiest Arab revolts against entrenched rulers.
At the United Nations, the five permanent Security Council members and Morocco met Tuesday to discuss a U.S.-drafted resolution urging an end to the Syrian crackdown on dissent.
Russia and China, adamantly opposed to any Libya-style intervention in Syria, last month vetoed a draft measure that would have backed an Arab League call for Assad to quit.
According to a text seen by Reuters, the U.S. draft demands "unhindered humanitarian access" and "condemns the continued widespread, systematic, and gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms by the Syrian authorities."
Moscow has made clear it has no intention of shifting its position on Syria for the sake of a deal and said it would not support the U.S. draft without changes.
In another effort to stop the violence, former U.N. chief Kofi Annan plans his first visit to Damascus as joint envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League Saturday.
Diplomacy has yet to brake a conflict likely to have cost more than 10,000 lives: the United Nations says security forces has killed well over 7,500 people and Syria said in December that "terrorists" had killed more than 2,000 security personnel.
Assad can still count on powerful allies such as Russia and China, as well as others including Iran, Venezuela and Cuba.
Syria said Wednesday it "welcomed" a Chinese plan brought by envoy Li Huaxin to promote a solution to the conflict.
The plan, unveiled in Beijing Sunday, urges all sides to end violence and cautions against "anyone interfering in Syria's internal affairs under the pretext of 'humanitarian' issues."
Li also met three Syrian opposition leaders whose activities are tolerated by the government.
One of them, Hassan Abdulazim, told Reuters: "We focused on the need to put pressure on the regime and get humanitarian aid to damaged areas in Homs, and the need for China to ... support the Arab League initiative and the United Nations and the international consensus to solve the crisis in Syria."
China is bringing workers home from Syria in an apparent attempt to avoid a repeat of last year's rescue of its nationals from Libya due to violence there.
Air France said it had halted all its flights to Damascus due to worsening security in Syria.
Western leaders have shunned any military intervention in Syria, despite the scale of the bloodletting, fearing an entanglement that could ignite tensions across the Middle East.
The White House said Obama was committed to diplomacy to end the violence, saying Washington wanted to isolate Assad, cut off his sources of revenue and encourage unity among his opponents.
"Ultimately this dictator will fall," Obama said, while rejecting a call by Senator John McCain for a U.S.-led effort to protect Syrian civilians with air strikes on Assad's forces.
(Additional reporting by Oliver Holmes, Dominic Evans and Erika Solomon in Beirut, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations, Lucy Hornby and Aileen Wang in Beijing, James Regan and John Irish in Paris, Steve Gutterman in Moscow and Tabassum Zakaria in Washington; Writing by Alistair Lyon)
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