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Syria Crisis: Shelling Continues As UN Humanitarian Chief Visits Country

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SYRIA CRISIS UN HUMANITARIAN CHIEF
A Syrian demonstrator holds a portrait of President Bashar Al-Assad during a pro-regime rally in Damascus, on March 7, 2012. (LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images) | Getty Images


By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

AMMAN, March 7 (Reuters) - The U.N. humanitarian chief headed on 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.

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 on Thursday after a month-long siege and state media say civilians have begun returning there.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has been trying to deliver relief supplies and evacuate the wounded, but has failed to get permission from the authorities so far, raising fears about the fate of survivors in Baba Amr.

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Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Geneva, said Amos left for Homs after meeting Foreign Ministry officials in Damascus.

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.

No independent witnesses have been allowed into the devastated Baba Amr district since rebels withdrew.

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 on 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.

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 the longest and bloodiest of Arab revolts against entrenched rulers.

At the United Nations, the five permanent Security Council members and Morocco met on Tuesday to discuss a U.S.-drafted resolution urging an end to the Syrian government's crackdown on demonstrators, a text some Western envoys said was too weak.

Russia and China, adamantly opposed to any Libya-style intervention in Syria, have vetoed two previous draft measures that would have condemned Damascus and it is not clear whether the latest one stands any chance of success.

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".

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 on 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.


PROMISED ELECTION

Assad, who has promised a multi-party parliamentary election in May, told a visiting Ukrainian lawmaker that Syrians had proved they would pursue reforms and "confront terrorism backed by foreign sides", state news agency SANA reported on Wednesday.

Apart from the shelling of the Homs districts of Karm al-Zeitoun, Jub al-Jandali and Deir Baalba, opposition sources said Syrian troops had staged raids in the towns of Qara and Yabroud north of Damascus, and in the northern city of Aleppo.

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.

Assad can still count on powerful allies such as Russia and China, as well as others including Iran, Venezuela and Cuba.

Chinese envoy Li Huaxin told reporters in Damascus on Wednesday that Syria had welcomed a six-point Chinese plan to promote a political solution to the year-long conflict.

The plan, unveiled on Sunday, called events in Syria "deeply worrying" and said: "We oppose anyone interfering in Syria's internal affairs under the pretext of 'humanitarian' issues."

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.

Only about 100 Chinese workers will be left behind to guard work camps and equipment, Commerce Minister Chen Deming said, without saying how many Chinese workers would be repatriated.

Air France said it had halted all its flights to Damascus due to worsening security in Syria.

France, which has led calls for Assad to step down closed its embassy in Damascus on Tuesday. (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 and Tabassum Zakaria in Washington; Writing by Alistair Lyon; editing by Janet McBride)

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