Syrian forces overrun rebel enclave in Homs

Posted March 01, 2012, at 9:27 p.m.

BEIRUT — Syrian forces overran a longtime rebel enclave in the battleground city of Homs, the government said Thursday, as the United Nations Security Council called on Syrian authorities to allow “immediate” humanitarian access to conflict-ridden areas of the country.

The occupation of Homs’ Baba Amr neighborhood — which became an international symbol of resistance — is an important victory for the Syrian military, though rebels continue to battle government forces in other parts of Homs and elsewhere in the country.

The Security Council statement deploring “the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation” in parts of Syria was especially significant because it was agreed to by superpowers Russia and China, which had jointly vetoed earlier draft U.N. resolutions condemning the Bashar Assad government.

Meanwhile, French President Nicolas Sarkozy reported that a pair of French journalists who had been trapped in Homs had escaped to neighboring Lebanon.

“I had her on the phone,” Sarkozy told reporters during a summit in Brussels, referring to Edith Bouvier, a French reporter for Le Figaro newspaper who had been stranded in Homs as the city was being shelled. “She has suffered a lot.”

Escaping to Lebanon with Bouvier was another French journalist, William Daniels, who was also trapped in Homs.

Bouvier suffered a fractured leg in a Feb. 22 shelling attack on a makeshift media center in the Baba Amr neighborhood. Activists said she had to be evacuated on a stretcher.

That Feb. 22 bombardment killed two other Western journalists, Marie Colvin, a U.S.-born correspondent for the Sunday Times of London, and Remi Ochlik, a French freelance photographer.

The apparently successful evacuation of the two French journalists means that all four surviving Western journalists remaining in Homs after the bombing of the media center have been successfully spirited out of the country. Earlier this week, Paul Conroy, a British photographer, and Javier Espinoza, a Spanish photographer, were reported to have entered Lebanon.

A network of Syrian opposition activists helped organize the complex and dangerous evacuations through Syrian government lines, according to Avaaz, a global activist group that assists the Syrian opposition and said it helped coordinate the rescue. At least 13 Syrians were killed in the rescue operation, which involved passing through Syrian military lines and dodging government shelling and sniper fire, Avaaz said.

On Thursday, Syrian insurgents who had occupied Baba Amr said they had decided to “strategically withdraw” from the district “for the sake of civilians remaining inside,” according to a Facebook message from Homs-based fighters of the Free Syrian Army, a loosely organized rebel umbrella group.

The rebel statement estimated that about 4,000 civilians remained in the battered, debris-strew neighborhood, which has endured weeks of shelling and firefights and on Thursday was blanketed in snow.

Several hundred armed rebels were believed to have occupied Baba Amr, which achieved international attention as an opposition holdout against Syrian government forces.

The departing fighters warned authorities against retaliating against civilians and called on the International Red Cross to enter the district, which has reportedly lacked water, electricity and regular supplies of food.

Opposition activists reported at least 23 killed Thursday in Homs. The number could not be independently verified because access to Syria is restricted.

The official Syrian-Arab News Agency said the Syrian army had “cleansed” Baba Amr of “the foreign-backed armed groups of terrorists.” The government agency also said that the bodies of the two slain journalists had been recovered and were to be transferred to a Damascus hospital for forensic analysis.

The yearlong revolt against the Assad government has evolved from a protest movement to an armed rebellion that has seen parts of Homs and other cities, towns and rural areas fall into rebel hands. But, as the case of Homs demonstrates, the Syrian military still maintains a substantial firepower advantage over the guerrillas, who are mostly armed with AK-47 rifles.

On Thursday, the main Syrian opposition group, the Syrian National Council, said it was setting up a military “bureau” to coordinate armed opposition to the government. The council’s Paris-based president, Burhan Ghalioun, told reporters that any arms headed to the rebels should be channeled through the council.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar back the rebel movement and have said they would consider arming the insurgents.

The opposition council, representing a coalition of anti-Assad groups, said when it was founded last year that its members were dedicated to a nonviolent revolution. But Ghalioun said Thursday that Syria faces “a new reality.”

The evolution to an armed Syrian resistance carries obvious risks. Some Syrians who backed the protests against Assad remain opposed to an armed rebellion.

The U.S. and other countries are wary of arming the rebels, whose ranks may include Islamic extremists.

Special correspondent Alexandra Sandels contributed to this report.

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