Aid workers find Baba Amr empty after UN talks in Damascus

GENEVA Wed Mar 7, 2012 12:39pm EST

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GENEVA (Reuters) - The 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, is in the country on a three-day mission to try to persuade authorities to grant unhindered access for aid workers to deliver life-saving assistance to civilians.

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 Syrian forces.

Activists had reported bloody reprisals by Syrian 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 to areas that have been already 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 in Homs and the nearby village of Abel where ICRC and Red Crescent workers distributed aid on Wednesday, the second time since Sunday, he said.

Hassan, asked whether Amos had held talks in Homs with the Red Crescent, later said: "She went in with the Syrian Red Crescent to Baba Amr."

MEETING IN DAMASCUS

Earlier, Elisabeth Byrs, 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 Walid al-Moualem but gave no details.

Syrian 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 had evacuated 30 people needing medical attention from Baba Amr, some seriously wounded, on its two previous visits, 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 neighborhood.

"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 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 their shrinking purchasing power, 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.

He was referring to a village outside Homs city where some residents of Baba Amr have fled. Some 350 families, roughly 2,100 people, received supplies in the Red Crescent's first distribution there on Sunday, according to the ICRC spokesman.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Maria Golovnina)

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