The U.N. humanitarian chief headed 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.
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 Thursday after a month-long siege and state media say civilians have begun returning there.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said a Syrian Arab Red Crescent team had entered the area Wednesday, but gave no details. An ICRC aid convoy has been unable to enter Baba Amr since reaching Homs a day after rebel fighters fled.
The long delay in securing access for relief agencies trying to deliver supplies and evacuate the wounded has fuelled international concern about the fate of survivors in Baba Amr.
The Red Crescent foray into Baba Amr, its first for 10 days, appeared timed to coincide with the visit by Amos, who left for Homs after seeing Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem 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.
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 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 U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has voiced alarm at reports that Syrian government forces have executed, imprisoned and tortured people in Baba Amr.
Tanks also shelled rebel strongholds in the town of Rastan, north of Homs, Wednesday, activists said. Troops staged raids in Qara and Yabroud north of Damascus, in the cities of Deir al-Zor and Aleppo, and in parts of Hama province.
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 U.S. 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 Tuesday to discuss a U.S.-drafted resolution urging an end to the Syrian crackdown on dissent.
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 U.S. 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 U.S. draft without changes. [ID:nL5E8E71BT]?
In another effort to stop the violence, former U.N. chief Kofi Annan plans his first visit to Damascus as joint envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League 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.
Syria said Wednesday it welcomed a Chinese plan brought by envoy Li Huaxin to promote a solution to the conflict.
The plan, unveiled in Beijing 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 military intervention in Syria, despite the scale of the bloodletting, fearing an entanglement that could ignite tensions across the Middle East.
The White House said Obama was committed to diplomacy to end the violence, saying Washington wanted to isolate Assad, cut off his sources of revenue and encourage unity among his opponents.
Ultimately this dictator will fall, Obama said, while rejecting a call by Senator John McCain for a U.S.-led effort to protect Syrian civilians with air strikes on Assad's forces.
For us to take military action unilaterally, as some have suggested, or to think that somehow there is some simple solution, I think is a mistake, the president said.
(Additional reporting by Oliver Holmes, Dominic Evans and Erika Solomon in Beirut, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations, Lucy Hornby and Aileen Wang in Beijing, James Regan and John Irish in Paris, Steve Gutterman in Moscow and Tabassum Zakaria in Washington; Writing by Alistair Lyon, editing by Peter Millership)