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In Syria, aid agencies unable to evacuate wounded

By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times –

BEIRUT — Aid agencies were unable to evacuate any people Saturday from a battled-scarred neighborhood in the central Syrian city of Homs, one day after the United States and other nations demanded that President Bashar Assad allow humanitarian aid into strife-ridden Syria.

Among the injured still stranded in Homs’ Baba Amr district were a pair of Western journalists, Edith Bouvier of the French daily Le Figaro and Paul Conroy of the London Sunday Times. Both suffered leg injuries in a shelling attack Wednesday that killed two other Western journalists.

Meanwhile, an opposition group reported at least 75 people were killed across Syria on Saturday, including 31 in Homs, a focal point of the almost yearlong rebellion against Assad. The figures from the Local Coordination Committees, an opposition network, could not be independently verified because media access to Syria is limited.

The continuing violence comes as Syria prepares for a nationwide referendum Sunday on a new constitution that is the centerpiece of what the government calls its political reform plan after four decades of Assad family rule.

Syrian authorities have provided few details on how the voting is to proceed in a nation where clashes are a daily occurrence and armed rebels have seized control of many towns and neighborhoods. The two major cities, Damascus and Aleppo, remain relatively free of conflict.

Despite the escalating violence, many Syrians in the two cities and elsewhere still support Assad, fearing that his toppling could lead to Iraq-style chaos and sectarian bloodletting.

Opposition groups seeking Assad’s ouster have called for a boycott of the referendum. White House spokesman Jay Carney ridiculed the initiative as “laughable.” But Russia and Iran, two Syrian allies, have lauded the constitutional overhaul.

A joint effort by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent resulted in a temporary cease-fire Friday and the evacuation of 27 civilians, including seven described as seriously injured, from Homs’ Baba Amr neighborhood. That raised hopes that the injured journalists stranded there might be among the next to leave.

But aid groups were unable to work out an arrangement after extensive discussions with government and opposition representatives, said Saleh Dabbakeh, a spokesman in Damascus for the Red Cross.

“We kept negotiating all day long, but unfortunately the negotiations did not lead to anything,” Dabbakeh said by telephone from the Syrian capital.

He declined to provide more details on what sticking points were blocking ambulances’ access. But it seemed clear that extensive behind-the-scenes efforts to arrange the evacuation of the Western journalists had bogged down amid an atmosphere of hostility and distrust.

The official Syrian Arab News Agency said “armed groups” in Homs had declined to “hand over” the Western media contingent and the remains of Marie Colvin, 56, a U.S. citizen who wrote for the Times of London, and Remi Ochlik, 28, a French photographer. Some news services reported that the two journalists’ bodies were to be buried in Homs.

The opposition says Baba Amr and other pro-rebel districts have been under government shelling for three weeks, leaving hundreds of civilians dead. The government blames “terrorists” for the bombardment.

Likely complicating matters is the fact that the Western journalists represent nations — the U.S., Britain and France — whose leaders have called for Assad to step down.

The three countries are prominent members of the so-called Friends of Syria group that met Friday in Tunis, the Tunisian capital, and, among other things, called on the Syrian government to immediately permit humanitarian agencies to deliver vital relief inside Syria.

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