The first of the wounded and sick women and children trapped in the besieged Baba Amro district of Homs were evacuated on Friday as international pressure mounted on the Syrian government to call a cease fire and allow in humanitarian aid.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said the Syrian Arab Red Crescent initially brought out seven women and children and took them to a hospital in Homs.
A further 20 uninjured women and children were evacuated later and taken to a safe area, ICRC chief spokeswoman Carla Haddad said. Foreign journalists trapped in the area were not among them.
It's a first step forward, Haddad told Reuters. The priority now is evacuating the seriously wounded or sick.
We are continuing discussions to resume the operation tomorrow morning.
The evacuation began as Western and Gulf Arab nations met in Tunis to escalate pressure on President Bashar al-Assad over his crackdown on 11 months of protests.
The Local Coordination Committees, an opposition activist group, said Assad's forces killed 103 people in the bombardment of Homs and in attacks on the countryside of Hama and the east and north of the country on Friday.
Speaking at the Tunis meeting, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Feisal said he supported arming the rebels.
I think it's an excellent idea, he said at the start of a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who warned Assad would pay a heavy price for the violence and said he must allow in urgent humanitarian relief.
If the Assad regime refuses to allow this life-saving aid to reach civilians, it will have even more blood on its hands, Clinton said. So too will those nations that continue to protect and arm the regime.
President Barack Obama, speaking in Washington, said: It is prime time to stop the killing of Syrian citizens by their own government.
All of us seeing the terrible pictures coming out of Syria and Homs recently recognize it is absolutely imperative for the international community to rally in sending a clear message to President Assad that it is time for a transition.
STAIN ON THEIR HONOUR
Clinton appealed to Syrian security forces to disobey orders from their commanders to carry out acts of violence.
Their (Syrian security forces) continuing to kill their brothers and sisters is a stain on their honour, Clinton said.
Their refusal to continue this slaughter will make them heroes in the eyes of not only Syrians but people of conscience everywhere. They can help the guns fall silent.
With the bombardment of opposition-held neighbourhoods in Homs entering its fourth week on Friday, the ICRC has been negotiating with the Syrian government and opposition forces to bring out the sick and wounded from Baba Amro.
But foreign journalists trapped in Baba Amro, two of them badly wounded, refused to leave the besieged neighbourhood without an ICRC and foreign diplomatic presence, and a commitment to a full humanitarian ceasefire, it said.
Two of the journalists, Edith Bouvier and Paul Conroy, need urgent medical care. The bodies of slain journalists Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, killed this week, remain in Baba Amro.
A Syrian Foreign Ministry official, quoted by the state news agency, said attempts to bring the journalists out of the area had been obstructed by opposition groups.
Authorities in Homs sent a number of notables of the city and ambulances from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to receive the foreign journalists who had entered Syria illegally, the official said.
Despite continuing this effort for several hours with armed groups in Baba Amr, these groups refused to hand over the wounded and the bodies - putting the life of the wounded French woman in danger and hindering the return of the bodies (of the two dead journalists) to their respective countries.
A French and ICRC plan to get international medical teams in to extract the foreign journalists and tend to the neighbourhood's most badly wounded was rejected by the Assad government, activist group Avaaz said.
With the wounded being taken only as far as a hospital in Homs, it was unlikely men would agree to leave the area for fear of falling into the hands of Syrian security forces.
Baba Amro is being hit with 122mm artillery directed at it from surrounding villages. A father and his 14-year-old son were among those killed. They were trying to flee the shelling when shrapnel hit them in the street, resident Mohammad al-Homsi said.
Activists also said Syrian security forces lined up and shot dead at least 18 people in a village in the central western Hama province. A video uploaded by activists showed people wrapping the bloodied bodies of children and at least four adults. Several had been shot through the head.
After the talks in Tunis, Tunisian foreign minister Rafik Abdessalem said the meeting of more than 50 western and Arab countries had backed an Arab League demand for a joint Arab and United Nations force to help end the violence in Syria. However, this point was not included in the meeting's final communique.
Abdessalem, who chaired Friday's inaugural Friends of Syria meeting, said western and Arab powers would probably recognise the opposition Syrian National Council as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people during their next meeting in Turkey.
We have gone half the way and we will probably do the other half in Turkey, he said.
The communique called on Syria to immediately cease all violence to allow the United Nations access to Homs, and to let agencies deliver aid to civilians affected by the violence.
The Friends of Syria also pledged to deliver humanitarian supplies immediately if Syria's government stopped its assault on civilian areas and permitted access.
Moves for tougher action against Syria have been stymied by Russian and Chinese vetoes in the U.N. Security Council and a lack of appetite for military action along the lines of the NATO bombing campaign that helped force out Libya's Muammar Gaddafi.
The head of the Syrian National Council expressed disappointment in the Tunis meeting. This conference does not meet the aspirations of the Syrian people, SNC chief Burhan Ghalioun told Reuters.
But in a sign the international community is seeking ways around the Security Council deadlock, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he would dispatch former U.N. chief Kofi Annan to Syria as a joint U.N.-Arab League envoy.
And in a blow to Assad, the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas turned publically against their long-time ally on Friday. I salute the heroic people of Syria who are striving for freedom democracy and reform, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said.
The exiled political leadership of Hamas, based in Damascus for over a decade, quietly quit the Syrian capital recently but had tried to deny their absence had anything to do with the revolt.
Western and Arab nations are also trying to enforce sanctions, which include travel bans, asset freezes, a halt to purchases of Syrian oil, ceasing infrastructure investment and financial services relating to Syria, reducing diplomatic ties and preventing arms shipments to the Syrian government.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said the European Union, which has already imposed sanctions on Syrian officials, businesses and oil exports, would freeze assets of the Syrian Central Bank from Monday.
(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Dominic Evans in Beirut, Khaled Oweis in Amman and Arshad Mohammed in Tunis; Writing by Myra MacDonald; Editing by Dominic Evans)