UN aid chief seeks access to battered Syrian city

Syrian tanks shell, raid parts of embattled Homs as Valerie Amos visits; China repatriates its workers from the country.

Syrian man surveys his damaged home 390 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Anis Mili)
Syrian man surveys his damaged home 390 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Anis Mili)
AMMAN - The UN humanitarian chief headed on Wednesday for a Syrian city where authorities have yet to let a Red Cross aid convoy into a former rebel area amid opposition reports of bloody reprisals by President Bashar al-Assad's forces there. A team of aid workers from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent did manage to enter the embattled neighborhood for the first time Wednesday.
Valerie Amos had wanted to visit Syria last week, but was denied access. The Syrian military drove armed rebels from the battered Baba Amr district on Thursday after a month-long siege and state media say civilians have begun returning there.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has been trying to deliver relief supplies and evacuate the wounded, but has failed to get permission from the authorities so far, raising fears about the fate of survivors in Baba Amr.
Amos left for the battle zones of Homs after meeting Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem in Damascus.
He told her Syria was trying to provide food, medical care and services to all citizens despite burdens imposed by "unfair" Western and Arab sanctions, the state news agency SANA said.
Amos is on a three-day mission to try to persuade Syrian authorities to grant unhindered access for aid workers to deliver life-saving assistance to civilians.
Syrian tanks bombarded other opposition areas in Homs overnight, anti-Assad activists said, although an ICRC spokesman in Damascus said the city was quieter than before.
No independent witnesses have been allowed into the devastated Baba Amr district since rebels withdrew.
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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 on Tuesday. "Their bodies were dumped in farmland next to Baba Amr," he told Reuters.
Syria imposes severe media restrictions, making such reports hard to verify, although UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has voiced alarm at reports that Syrian government forces have executed, imprisoned and tortured people in Baba Amr.
Apart from the shelling of the Homs districts of Karm al-Zeitoun, Jub al-Jandali and Deir Baalba, opposition sources said Syrian troops had staged raids in the towns of Qara and Yabroud north of Damascus, and in the northern city of Aleppo.
'It's only a matter of time'
President Barack Obama said it was only a matter of time before Assad left office, but he opposed a call by a senior US 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 on Tuesday to discuss a U.S.-drafted resolution urging an end to the Syrian government's crackdown on demonstrators, a text some Western envoys said was too weak.
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 US 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 US draft without changes.
In another effort to stop the violence, former UN chief Kofi Annan plans his first visit to Damascus as joint envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League on 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.
The 'China plan'
Syria said on Wednesday it "welcomed" a Chinese plan brought by envoy Li Huaxin to promote a solution to the conflict.
The plan, unveiled in Beijing on 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 Libya-style military action in Syria, despite the scale of the bloodletting, fearing an entanglement that could ignite tensions across the Middle East.