New pressure expected for Syria cease-fire and humanitarian aid

The United States and allied governments seeking the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad were expected to exert new pressure Friday on Syrian authorities to agree to a cease-fire and allow humanitarian aid into besieged areas such as the battered central city of Homs.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is among the many diplomats scheduled to arrive Friday in Tunis, the Tunisian capital, with a goal of turning up the heat on Assad’s government.

“We’ve got to find ways to get food, medicine and other humanitarian assistance in to those affected by violence,” Clinton said Thursday in London, where she and other diplomats discussed Syria, among other issues.

Meanwhile, two wounded journalists in Homs appeared in Internet videos seeking help to be evacuated. The city is under siege from government troops.


“I need a cease-fire quickly and a medical vehicle, or a vehicle in good condition, to be taken to Lebanon to be treated as quickly as possible,” pleaded Edith Bouvier, a freelance reporter working for the French daily Le Figaro, who said she suffered a badly broken leg. “The surgeons here have done what they can, as best as they can, but they cannot perform an operation.”

Medical treatment available in Homs is said to be rudimentary, with many makeshift clinics set up in private residences, always under the threat of shelling or attack. Plasma bags hang on coat hangers.

Paul Conroy, an Irish photographer in Homs working for the Sunday Times of London, said he had wounds to his leg and that “any assistance that can be given by government agencies would be welcomed.”

Almost three weeks of shelling have left hundreds dead in Homs, according to opposition activists. Much of the population has fled, and opposition strongholds such as the Baba Amr district have suffered major destruction.

The Local Coordination Committees, an opposition coalition, reported at least 101 deaths in Syria on Thursday, including 26 in the city of Hama, north of Homs, and 46 in the restive northwestern province of Idlib. The numbers could not be independently verified because journalists’ access to Syria is limited.

On Wednesday, the violence took the lives of a pair of Western journalists, Marie Colvin, a U.S.-born reporter with the Sunday Times of London, and Remi Ochlik, a French photographer. They were reported killed in the shelling of a makeshift media center in the Baba Amr district. Their bodies remained in Homs as news organizations and diplomats searched for a way to evacuate the remains amid the conflict.

Various humanitarian groups, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, have called for some form of cease-fire in Syria, where more than 5,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Assad began in March.

On Thursday, a nonprofit humanitarian group, Avaaz, reported that seven Syrian civilians carrying medical aid to the wounded journalists had been executed in Homs.

All seven were found shot with their hands tied behind their backs, Avaaz said in a statement. Two other members of the rescue party, including a paramedic, disappeared, the group said. A respirator being carried by the rescue workers was gone, the group said, and medicines were scattered on a road near where the bodies were found. The group blamed the Syrian military.

There was no comment Thursday from Syrian authorities, but the government has denied allegations that the two journalists killed had been targeted. Officials said they had no idea the journalists were in the country because they had entered illegally.

Syria has issued relatively few visas for journalists, prompting many to enter the country using smuggler routes from neighboring Lebanon or Turkey.

In Tunis, the so-called Friends of Syria group is expected to call for new sanctions on the Assad government, which is already in economic free fall because of previous measures and the almost-yearlong rebellion. The international coalition is also expected to increase humanitarian aid and throw new diplomatic support behind one of the largest opposition groups, the Syrian National Council.

“We believe that the Syrian National Council … will show that there is an alternative to the Assad regime,” Clinton said.

However, the Syrian opposition has been deeply divided about a wide range of issues, and some factions do not support the council.

Missing from the meeting in Tunis will be Russia and China, two major powers that have twice exercised vetoes in the United Nations Security Council to block measures condemning the Assad government. Russia and China have backed dialogue between the government and the opposition to prevent Syria from sliding into civil war. But the United States and its allies say the time for dialogue is over, and Assad must go.

The U.N. announced Thursday that former Secretary-General Kofi Annan had been appointed as a joint U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria. His mandate would be to try to arrange a political transition, news services said.

And a special U.N.-backed panel said Thursday that the “highest levels” of the Syrian government are responsible for “widespread and systematic” human rights violations. The finding raised the prospect of war crimes charges against ranking members of Assad’s administration.

Homs, the focus of much of the recent violence, was relatively quiet late Thursday, but activists said they feared an impending invasion led by government tanks deployed just outside the Baba Amr neighborhood, which was described as being sealed off.

“Right now it’s somewhat calm, but we are scared about tomorrow morning because the tanks have moved very close,” said an activist in Homs reached via the Skype Internet communications system. “There is no possibility of escape at all.”

Special correspondent Alexandra Sandels in Beirut and Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.