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Syrian forces launch ground assault on rebel city

01 march 2012, 14:20
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UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon (R) meets with UN-Arab League Joint Special Envoy for Syria Kofi Annan. ©AFP
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon (R) meets with UN-Arab League Joint Special Envoy for Syria Kofi Annan. ©AFP
Syrian ground troops launched a ground assault on a rebel-held district of Homs after shelling it for 26 days, said activists, as pressure grew for humanitarian access to besieged protest cities, AFP reports.

Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, the new international mediator for Syria, said he hoped to be in Damascus "fairly soon" with a "clear" message -- that the deadly violence must end and aid agencies must be allowed to work.

A top UN official, political chief B Lynn Pascoe, has said "well over 7,500" people have been killed since President Bashar al-Assad's forces began cracking down on anti-regime protests that erupted in March last year.

A security source told AFP in Damascus on Wednesday that Baba Amr was "under control," after activists said the elite Fourth Armoured Division had taken up positions around the holdout district of Homs, Syria's third-largest city.

"The army has started combing the area building by building and house by house. Now the troops are searching every basement and tunnel for arms and terrorists," the security source said, noting a "few pockets" of resistance.

But a human rights watchdog and activists in the central city denied that troops had moved into Baba Amr, insisting that clashes were taking place only on its outskirts.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights insisted that rebel forces were "preventing an attempt to storm" Baba Amr.

Homs-based activist Hadi Abdullah reported clashes and heavy shelling of Baba Amr but insisted that ground troops had not entered the neighbourhood.

But the arrival of the Fourth Armoured Division, which is under the command of Assad's brother Maher, has signalled a final assault, he told AFP by telephone.

Rebel commanders said access to Homs was now completely blocked after regular troops blew up an underground aqueduct that had been the last viable route for smuggling of desperately needed supplies.

Annan, speaking to reporters after a meeting with current UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, asked the divided international community to unite behind his mission as a special envoy to Syria for the United Nations and Arab League.

"Every move is sensitive and highly political, even the itinerary, but we are working it out and I would expect to go to Syria fairly soon," said Annan.

"I think the message is clear: that the killing and violence must stop, humanitarian agencies must be given access to do their work," he said.

"It is regrettable that that does not seem to be happening."

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meanwhile lambasted Russia for its failure to produce an aid plan for Syria, despite Moscow's great influence with Assad.

"We are doing everything we can think of to influence the Russians and the Chinese, particularly the Russians: they're the ones with the very deep, long-standing relationship with the Assad family," Clinton told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington.

"It is a very troubling and frustrating situation because the Russians continue to say, oh, they're for humanitarian aid, but then they don't produce any plan that Assad will sign off on."

Efforts to bring out Le Figaro journalist Edith Bouvier, who is trapped inside Baba Amr with multiple fractures, were intensified after her British colleague Paul Conroy was successfully smuggled out to Lebanon on Monday night.

"We expect the government in Damascus to put all the conditions in place for a safe and rapid evacuation, in particular an immediate ceasefire in Baba Amr," said French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero.

Thirteen Syrian activists were killed trying to help Bouvier and Conroy and to bring in aid to Baba Amr, international activist group Avaaz said.

Syrian foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said Wednesday that his government had tried "in vain" to help evacuate the journalists, insisting that Damascus was committed to its "humanitarian obligations" and accusing rebels and journalists of not cooperating.

Spanish journalist Javier Espinosa, who had been trapped in Homs, has arrived in Lebanon from Syria, his employer, the El Mundo newspaper, said, adding he was "in perfect health."

Fifteen civilians were killed across the country on Wednesday, including eight in Homs, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Eight members of the security forces also died Wednesday in clashes with rebel fighters and attacks in the Aleppo region in the north and Daraa in the south, the Britain-based monitoring group said.

At the United Nations, diplomats said Washington had begun work on a new draft UN Security Council resolution demanding humanitarian access to besieged cities, such as Homs.

But UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said Syria did not respond to her request for a visa to assess the growing crisis.

Western nations hope that focusing on the humanitarian crisis will persuade Russia and China not to use their veto powers as they did against previous Western-drafted resolutions last October and again in early February.

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