Aid workers enter besieged Syrian neighborhood, find it abandoned

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After being barred from the former rebel stronghold of Baba Amr for five days, a Syrian Arab Red Crescent team entered the battered neighborhood Wednesday to aid and evacuate the wounded.

But by the time that the aid workers got into the neighborhood in the central Syrian city of Homs, there were ‘practically no inhabitants’ left, said Carla Haddad Mardini, chief spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross. ‘Most of them seem to have fled.’

The Red Crescent team stayed only 45 minutes in the area, she said.

‘The fact that they entered today and there are almost no inhabitants left there corroborates our need to have access with the shortest delay in areas affected by the fighting,’ Haddad Mardini said in a telephone interview.


The Red Crescent and the International Committee of the Red Cross had last week gotten the green light from Syrian authorities to enter Baba Amr, a focus of rebel resistance that for weeks had been the target of intense attacks by pro-government forces.

Yet the aid groups were blocked from entering the area when they arrived Friday, with Syrian forces citing security concerns. Red Cross President Jakob Kellenberger called the move ‘unacceptable.’

Haddad Mardini said the last time aid workers had entered the neighborhood was Feb. 24, when they came in to evacuate a group of 27 wounded people.

The neighborhood was retaken by Syrian troops late last week after Free Syrian Army rebels, short of weapons, pulled back from the area. Keeping the aid workers out added to suspicions about the military’s conduct in the long-besieged neighborhood, one of the hardest hit in the fighting.

Opposition activists claim that the army has killed entire families in Baba Amr in retaliation for the uprising against the rule of President Bashar Assad. The Local Coordination Committees, an activist network, reported Wednesday that a Baba Amr family of 13 people, including five children, had been ‘slaughtered’ by regime forces. Activists also reported that heavy shelling and snipers continued to endanger people in Homs.

Pro-regime Syrian television has claimed that at least one killing was the work of the rebels, not the army. Because media access is restricted, the claims on either side could not be verified.

While waiting to enter Baba Amr, the medical teams went to other neighborhoods in Homs, delivering blankets, mattresses, food, water and basic hygiene supplies. Those receiving the aid included people who had fled Baba Amr.

More than 7,500 people have been killed in the uprising over the last year, according to the United Nations. Syrian officials say they are fending off armed terrorists, but the U.N. has condemned the regime for rampant human rights abuses and backed a plan for Assad to step down.


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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles