Homs - Reuters - February 23, 2012
A boy holds the remain of a mortar in this handout picture taken by Syrian National Council in Karm Al Zaytoon, a neighborhood of Homs, February 23, 2012. Photo by Reuters
Text size

Red Cross aid workers entered a besieged neighborhood in the Syrian city of Homs Friday and are negotiating with authorities and rebels to evacuate all wounded, including two Western journalists, a spokesman said.

"The effort to evacuate the reporters … who were injured in a government attack that killed American war correspondent Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik … is part of a wider international push to bring aid to people in the areas hardest hit by Syria's efforts to quash the uprising against President Bashar Assad's rule," the spokesman said.

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on Syrian soldiers not to use violence against their own countrymen, saying that if they refuse to do so they will "be hailed as heroes."

Speaking in Tunisia at a major international conference on the Syrian crisis, Clinton announced that the U.S. is providing "$10 million to quickly scale up humanitarian efforts, including support for refugees."

Also on Friday, Foreign Policy magazine published on its website a report which claimed the U.S. is coordinating with regional powers to safeguard Syria's weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) if Assad's regime falls.

"The State Department has begun coordinating with Syria's neighbors to prepare for the handling of President Bashar al-Assad's extensive WMD assets if and when his regime collapses," the report said.

"This week, the State Department sent a diplomatic demarche to Syria's neighbors Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia, warning them about the possibility of Syria's WMDs crossing their border s and offering U.S. government help in dealing with the problem, three Obama administration officials confirmed," the report added.

Hicham Hassan of the International Committee of the Red Cross said Friday that the ICRC and its local Syrian branch have been working in the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs since Friday afternoon.

The team is "negotiating with both Syrian authorities and opposition in an attempt to evacuate all persons in need of assistance with no exception," he said, meaning local residents and foreign journalists.

French journalists Edith Bouvier and William Daniels have asked for help leaving the embattled city after Bouvier was wounded in shelling Wednesday that killed Colvin and Ochlik. British photographer Paul Conroy also was wounded in the attack.

But international efforts to end the crisis are also trying to help civilians trapped in embattled areas.

The Syrian uprising, which began last March with protests in some of Syria's impoverished hinterlands, is evolving into one of the most violent of the Arab Spring. Assad's security forces have used extreme force against protesters, and the opposition is increasingly taking up arms.

The UN said last month that 5,400 people had been killed. Hundreds more have died since. Activists put the number at more than 7,300, but overall figures are impossible to confirm independently.

The rebel-held neighborhood of Baba Amr in the city of Homs is one such area.

The journalists were struck when a barrage of government rockets on Wednesday hit a makeshift media center that was being used by activists and foreign reporters who had sneaked into Homs.

One video posted on YouTube Wednesday showed Bouvier lying on a hospital gurney with a white cast stretching from her left ankle to her thigh. Conroy is on a nearby bed, with white bandages around his left thigh and calf. The video says he was injured by shrapnel from the rocket attack.
In another video, posted Thursday, Bouvier is covered with a blanket and lying on what appears to be a couch. She says her leg is broken in two places and that she needs an operation that local medics cannot perform.

"I need, as soon as possible, a cease-fire and a medically equipped car in good condition to drive us to Lebanon," she says. Daniels, who is uninjured, stands at her side and pleads for their swift evacuation.

"It is difficult here. We don't have electricity. We don't have much to eat. The bombs continue to fall," he said, adding that they only have Internet access in a dangerous place on the neighborhood's edge. A boom is heard outside as he speaks.

It was unclear if the journalists have moved since. It is also unclear where the bodies of Colvin and Ochlik are. The day they died, activists posted a video of what they said were the reporters' bodies lying in the bombed-out media center.

Syrian activists in Baba Amr could not be reached Friday to comment on the journalists' whereabouts.

At the conference in Tunisia, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said he was worried about the French journalists and that Syrian authorities had not given permission for the French ambassador to Syria to go to Homs to arrange their evacuation.

"I appeal personally to the Syrian authorities that Madame Bouvier and the others receive the medical care they urgently need," he said.

The Red Cross didn't say how its team reached the area and whether they were accompanied by Syrian authorities.

Saleh Dabbakeh, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Damascus, said before the visit was announced that volunteer medics work in most of Homs' neighborhoods, but that Baba Amr was too dangerous to enter.

Baba Amr, a neighborhood in the southeast corner of Homs, has been targeted by the harshest crackdown against any of the handful of rebel-held areas in the city of about 1 million residents. Syrian security forces have besieged the area for weeks and shelled it daily.

The Geneva-based ICRC has appealed to Syria's government and opposition groups to allow daily two-hour cease-fires so it can deliver relief supplies and evacuate the wounded and sick. American, European and Arab officials also were expected Friday to back a proposal of Assad to step down and to call for a cease-fire that would allow aid to enter embattled areas.