No sign of Syria truce to let civilians evacuate from Homs

BEIRUT — The International Committee of the Red Cross said Wednesday that it had received assurances from the Syrian government and opposition forces on a plan for a temporary truce to evacuate and assist people stranded in the battle-torn city of Homs.

But reports from pro-opposition activists in Homs indicated that the government had continued shelling, clashes were ongoing and there was no sign of a relief operation.

Rebels were also reportedly on the offensive, seeking to reoccupy the battered Baba Amr district, a longtime rebel enclave that became an international symbol of resistance until Syrian forces overran the neighborhood in March after weeks of shelling and urban combat.

Insurgents have been methodically attacking more than a dozen military checkpoints surrounding Baba Amr, which is a key logistics corridor for rebels based deeper inside the city, said an opposition activist from the district who is in Lebanon.

“It’s first because of the symbolism of the place,” said the activist, who declined to be named for security reasons. “Second, it’s the route where all the supplies to Homs enter.”

The Red Cross said hundreds of civilians were trapped inside Homs’ old city, unable to flee because of the battles.

“It is critical that the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent be immediately given safe and unhindered access to those in need of lifesaving assistance,” Beatrice Megevand-Roggo, head of the Red Cross’ operations for the Near and Middle East, said in a statement

The United Nations has already issued a plea for both sides in the conflict to allow humanitarian access to Homs, which has seen the heaviest sustained fighting throughout the 15-month rebellion against the government of President Bashar Assad.

Broad swaths of Homs have been reduced to rubble, and much of its population has fled a metropolitan area that once was home to more than 1 million people. Homs was long a bustling urban center on the road between Damascus, the capital, and the northern city of Aleppo, the nation’s commercial hub.

Intense fighting has resumed in the last 10 days as government forces try to retake areas occupied by insurgents. As the battles rage, efforts to rescue stranded civilians have become caught up in the poisoned atmosphere of Syria’s strife.

The government has accused rebels of using civilians as “human shields” and preventing evacuations. The rebels, in turn, have alleged that government forces engage in indiscriminate bombardment of civilian districts and deliberately target field clinics.

Once a humanitarian “pause” is in place, the Red Cross and Red Crescent said, their personnel would enter the hard-hit old city. The Red Cross said “all possible measures” must be implemented to facilitate the evacuation of the wounded, the sick and civilians.

Marrouch is a special correspondent.