Syrian troops pursue crackdown, Annan to visit

Forces spread through Deraa, "clean up" in Homs; Red Cross seeks access to fallen rebel stronghold.

Military vehicle seen in Syria, Homs_390 (photo credit: Reuters)
Military vehicle seen in Syria, Homs_390
(photo credit: Reuters)
AMMAN - Syrian forces spread across the city of Deraa on Monday after overnight clashes there and pursued "clean-up" operations in Homs, where the Red Cross was still seeking access to a former rebel bastion.
Syria has so far brushed off international pressure to halt nearly a year of bloodshed since the first protests against President Bashar Assad erupted in Deraa last March, touching off an uprising inspired by others in the Arab world.
The United Nations-Arab League special envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, will travel to Damascus on Saturday for what would be his first visit since he was appointed to the post last month.
"Kofi Annan told me that Syria will receive him on March 10 and that he would arrive in Cairo on March 7," the Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby said in Cairo.
UN humanitarian affairs chief Valerie Amos, who has demanded access to Syria's besieged towns, said on Monday that the Syrian government had agreed to allow her to visit the country later this week.
"As requested by the Secretary-General (Ban Ki-moon), my aim is to urge all parties to allow unhindered access for humanitarian relief workers so that they can evacuate the wounded and deliver essential supplies," she said in a statement. Amos said she plans to be in Syria from Wednesday to Friday.
China also said it would send an envoy to Syria to try to halt a conflict that has divided Beijing from Western and Arab powers demanding stronger action against Assad.
Hundreds of troops and security men fanned out in Deraa on a scale not seen for months, a resident of the southern city said.
The clampdown followed attacks on security checkpoints in the city center that were also the most extensive for months. At least one person was killed, the Deraa resident told Reuters.
Outgunned rebels have multiplied hit-and-run assaults across Syria in the last few days to signal their defiance after the military overran the Baba Amr district of Homs.
A bomb explosion hit an oil pipeline in Syria's eastern province of Deir al-Zor on Monday as Syrian troops began a sweep in the region, opposition activists said.
Month-long siege continues
Syrian armored forces recaptured Baba Amr from its lightly armed defenders on Thursday after an almost month-long siege in which shelling reduced much of the district to rubble.
The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent were still seeking approval from Syrian authorities to enter Baba Amr to help civilians there.
Teams from the two agencies distributed food and blankets to civilians, including families who had fled Baba Amr, in two neighborhoods of Homs, ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan said.
An ICRC convoy carrying food for "several thousand people" and other relief supplies had also arrived in Homs from Damascus, the second in less than a week, he said in Geneva.
Opposition activists have accused Syrian forces of carrying out bloody reprisals in Baba Amr, but their reports are hard to verify given Syria's severe curbs on independent media.
Human Rights Watch quoted "local sources" on Friday as saying about 700 civilians had been killed and thousands wounded in Homs since a military assault in the city began on February 3.
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The state news agency SANA said the authorities had begun to remove "destruction and debris left by armed terrorist groups in Inshaat and Baba Amr neighborhoods in Homs" on Sunday.
It said 16 members of the security forces killed by insurgents had been buried the same day.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the security forces had killed 29 people across Syria on Sunday. The Local Coordination Committees, a grassroots opposition group, put the death toll at 62, including 17 in Homs.
The United Nations refugee agency said on Sunday up to 2,000 Syrians were fleeing into neighboring Lebanon, but it was not immediately clear how many had actually crossed the border.
Lebanon hosts more than 7,000 registered refugees from Syria. Turkish leaders say about 12,000 Syrians, half of them not registered at camps, have fled to their country.