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Syrian authorities block aid convoy from entering Baba Amr sector of Homs

By Patrick J. McDonnell and Alexandra Sandels, Los Angeles Times –

BEIRUT — Syrian authorities blocked an aid convoy from entering the former rebel enclave of Baba Amr in the city of Homs, the Red Cross said Friday, as opposition activists alleged that security forces were carrying out revenge killings in the district.

Jakob Kellenberg, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, called it “unacceptable” that residents of the battered neighborhood had not received aid.

The Red Cross said a seven-vehicle convoy carrying medical assistance, food, water and other necessities from Damascus had reached Homs but was denied entry into the Baba Amr sector. The group said it hoped the supplies could enter on Saturday.

The Baba Amr district has become ground zero in a raging international debate about humanitarian aid for strife-ridden zones in Syria.

Syrian authorities have said they are responding to humanitarian needs, even though their forces are often under fire. The government is extremely wary that talk of a humanitarian crisis could be used as a pretext for international intervention in the almost-yearlong uprising against President Bashar Assad.

The United Nations and other international groups have repeatedly called for humanitarian aid to have unrestricted access to Homs and other embattled regions.

On Friday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon used unusually strong language to reiterate the demand.

“The images which we have seen in Syria are atrocious,” Ban told reporters in New York. “It’s totally unacceptable, intolerable. How, as a human being, can you bear this situation?”

Syria’s U.N. ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, disputed the U.N. chief’s characterization and said the government was willing to accept a visit by a U.N. humanitarian envoy, Valerie Amos.

Syrian security forces on Thursday overran Baba Amr, which for weeks had been a potent international symbol of rebel resistance.

The official government press agency said security forces had “cleansed” Baba Amr of “foreign-backed armed groups of terrorists.” The government says it is battling terrorists armed from abroad. The rebels call themselves freedom fighters.

Few doubt that the conflict will continue despite the fall of Baba Amr. Syrian guerrillas have been fighting a guerrilla war in many parts of the country and have often retreated in the face of superior firepower.

The rebels are expecting new supplies of arms in the wake of declarations by the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar in favor of arming the Syrian resistance. U.S. authorities say the move is premature and have expressed concern that Islamist militants may be among the Syrian insurgent ranks.

Syrian rebels said they beat a tactical retreat from Baba Amr to avoid more bloodshed among neighborhood residents, hundreds of whom were killed during weeks of government shelling, according to the opposition.

The neighborhood, once a thriving, working-class district that was home to a reported 100,000 people, is now a ravaged ghost town where, according to the rebels, only about 4,000 people remained Thursday.

Most residents fled during the weeks of shelling and fighting. Food, water and electricity have been in short supply or nonexistent for weeks. Burials of the dead had to be done in the evening, the opposition said, and even then there was a danger from sniper fire or shelling.

Syrian state television on Friday showed an aerial view of Baba Amr. It appeared as a desolate stretch of abandoned, rubble-strewn streets and shell-pocked buildings, all blanketed in snow. State television interviewed people identified as Homs residents who thanked the military and complained that armed thugs had taken control of the area.

An opposition network, the Local Coordinating Committees, alleged that security forces had executed 14 people Friday in Baba Amr and had also killed a physician, Dr. Abdul Jabbar Hillal, who had treated the wounded and helped people escape. There was no immediate government response to the allegation.

Nationwide Friday, the opposition network said, 75 people died in continuing violence, a figure that could not be independently verified because media access to Syria is limited. Hundreds of anti-government protests were reported across the country.

An injured French journalist, Edith Bouvier, returned to France on Friday aboard a specially equipped medical aircraft. French President Nicolas Sarkozy watched as family members embraced the 31-year-old reporter as she was hoisted off the plane and placed into an ambulance.

Bouvier suffered a fractured left leg in a reported shelling of a makeshift media center in Baba Amr that killed two other journalists, Marie Colvin, a U.S.-born reporter on assignment for the Sunday Times of London, and Remi Ochlik, a French freelance photographer.

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