* Rebels battle Syrian army near Baba Amro in Homs
* UN-Arab League envoy Annan pursues diplomatic effort
* Syria denies entry to U.N. humanitarian chief Amos
(Adds Spanish journalist escapes, Hague comments)
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
AMMAN, Feb 29 Heavy fighting raged near
Baba Amro in Homs on Wednesday after elite Syrian troops
attacked the rebel-held bastion that has endured 25 days of
siege and fierce bombardment, activists said.
"Pray for the Free Syrian Army. Do not be miserly in your
prayers for them," opponents of President Bashar al-Assad said
in a statement, as diplomats spoke of his brother's feared 4th
Armoured Division mounting a drive to "finish off" the rebels.
The motley band of army deserters and desperate insurgents
who call themselves the Farouq Brigade of the Free Syrian Army
have sworn to fight to the last man, one activist from Baba Amro
told Reuters. Others, though, said some of the unit's leaders
had already made their escape from the shattered neighbourhood.
The 4th Armoured Division commanded by Maher al-Assad, the
president's younger brother, has a reputation for ruthlessness
burnished during the past year of revolt and forged in history.
Drawn from the Alawite sect to which the Assads belong, it
is hated by many in the Sunni majority who recall the role its
predecessor units played in massacring many thousands of Sunni
Islamists at Hama in 1982 on the orders of Assad's father Hafez.
Details from Homs were sketchy but as Syria refused to allow
a visit to the country by a senior U.N. humanitarian envoy,
Valerie Amos, a senior Western diplomat told Reuters: "All the
signs out of Homs are that they're trying to finish it off.
"They clearly feel that letting her in now would be
devastating for their image - as indeed it would be."
Communicating over the Internet, the Baba Amro activist, who
calls himself only Ahmed and who said he had just left the area,
said: "We call on all Syrians in other cities to move and do
something to lift the pressure off Baba Amro and Homs.
"They should act quickly."
Homs, a symbol of opposition to Assad in a nearly year-long
revolt, was without power or telephone links, Ahmed said.
Spanish reporter Javier Espinosa, one of several Western
journalists trapped in Baba Amro for a week, crossed to Lebanon
on Wednesday, an activist said, following the escape on Tuesday
of wounded British photographer Paul Conroy.
Still in Homs were French journalists William Daniels and
Edith Bouvier, who was wounded in a Feb. 22 bombardment which
killed veteran Sunday Times war correspondent Marie Colvin and
French photographer Remi Ochlik. Their bodies remain there.
YouTube footage posted by activists showed army trucks and
tank carriers on a highway, purportedly heading for Homs.
"I am appalled by reports that the Assad regime is preparing
a full-scale land assault on the people of Homs," Britain's
Foreign Secretary William Hague said, calling instead for
immediate access for humanitarian groups to provide aid.
Reports from the city could not immediately be verified due
to tight government restrictions on media work in Syria, where
Assad is facing the gravest challenge of his 11-year rule.
A spokesman for the International Committee of the Red
Cross, Hicham Hassan, said the violence in Homs was making the
humanitarian situation more difficult.
"This makes it even more important for us to repeat our call
for a halt in the fighting," he told Reuters in Geneva.
Activists say hundreds of civilians have been killed in
besieged opposition districts of Homs, including at least 20 on
Tuesday. Shells and rockets have been crashing into Baba Amro
since Feb. 4. Army snipers pick off civilians who venture out.
The ICRC said its Syrian Red Crescent affiliate had
established 10 distribution and first aid points in Homs, but
had been unable to operate in Baba Amro because of the violence.
Troops also bombarded the besieged town of Rastan, 20 km (13
miles) north of Homs, and several people were killed when a
shell hit a house, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Activists said troops and pro-Assad militiamen had also
attacked the town of Helfaya, an opposition stronghold near
Hama, detaining people and raiding and burning houses.
YouTube footage posted by activists showed crowds of people
in the nearby town of Kernaz protesting in solidarity with
Helfaya. Demonstrators danced, waved pre-Baathist era Syrian
flags and chanted: "God support your oppressed subjects."
Troops and militiamen launched a security sweep in the
eastern Damascus suburb of Harasta, where telephone services
have been cut off for the past month, activists said.
The United Nations says Assad's security forces have killed
more than 7,500 civilians since the revolt began last March.
Syria's government said in December that "armed terrorists" had
killed more than 2,000 soldiers and police during the unrest.
U.N. humanitarian chief Amos said she was "deeply
disappointed" Syria refused to let her visit the country, where
she had hoped to assess the emergency relief needs in besieged
towns. "Given the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation,
with an increasing need for medical assistance, food and basic
supplies, improving access, so that assistance can reach those
in urgent need, is a matter of the highest priority," she said.
The senior Western diplomat who spoke of efforts to "finish
off" the rebels in Homs said Syria had decided to deny Amos
entry "despite Russian efforts to get her access".
The United States has outlined a new U.N. Security Council
resolution on Syria, to demand access for relief workers and an
end to violence, Western envoys said on Tuesday.
They said the draft focused on humanitarian problems to try
to win Chinese and Russian support and isolate Assad, but that
it would also suggest Assad was to blame for the crisis, a
stance his longtime ally Russia has opposed.
Russia and China vetoed a draft resolution on Feb. 4 that
would have backed an Arab League call for Assad to step down,
but both nations have signalled support for humanitarian action.
Kofi Annan, the newly appointed U.N.-Arab League envoy for
Syria, said he would hold talks in New York from Wednesday with
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and member states. He will
then meet Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby in Cairo.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said that
Annan, the former U.N. secretary-general, had also been invited
One obstacle to international efforts on Syria has been
disunity among Assad's opponents, with no single group emerging
as a credible and widely accepted representative.
Libya, one of the first states to recognise the opposition
Syrian National Council as Syria's legitimate authority, pledged
on Wednesday to give it $100 million in humanitarian aid, in
another gesture of solidarity from a nation whose NATO-backed
rebels overthrew Muammar Gaddafi.
(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans, Erika Solomon and
Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Steve Gutterman in Moscow, Louis
Charbonneau at the United Nations, Taha Zargoun in Tripoli and
Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing
by Alastair Macdonald)