- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 29, 2012

BEIRUT — Syrian troops advanced Wednesday on a key rebel-held area in the central city of Homs, where three Western journalists are among 100,000 residents trapped by a government assault that has raged for weeks. The forces appeared to be starting a ground operation to retake the area that has become a symbol of the uprising to oust President Bashar Assad.

Government forces have been heavily shelling Homs, and particularly the rebel-controlled Baba Amr neighborhood, for more than three weeks with tanks, artillery and rockets. The announcement by a Syrian official of the new troop advance indicated a ground assault was beginning to recapture Baba Amr, home to about 100,000 people.

A Syrian official vowed Baba Amr would be “cleaned” within hours. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Homs, Syria’s third-largest city with a population of about 1 million, has become the major center of both anti-government resistance and reprisal, fueled in part by increasingly bold army defectors who want to bring down Assad’s autocratic regime by force. The U.N. warned Tuesday that Syria’s conflict looks increasingly like a civil war.

Four Western journalists — two of them wounded — had been trapped in Baba Amr since last week, when two other foreign reporters were killed there by a government attack. On Tuesday, Syrian rebels smuggled out Paul Conroy, one of the four journalists, and whisked him safely across the border into Lebanon. Activists said 13 Syrians involved in the rescue operation were killed during it.

Activists said regime forces discovered a nearly 1.5 mile-long tunnel that was used by activists to smuggle people, food and medicine into Baba Amr. The activists said it was not clear whether the regime would blow it up.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said electricity has been cut on the rebel-held Homs neighborhoods of Bayadah and Khaldiyeh and the military redeployed some forces in what could be preparation for an attack on those areas as well.

The French government confirmed Wednesday that two French reporters remained trapped in Baba Amr, Edith Bouvier of Le Figaro and William Daniels. Bouvier and Conroy were wounded last week in the same attack that killed American journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik.

The French Foreign Ministry demanded that the Syrian regime ensure conditions that allow for the “sure and rapid evacuation” of the two French journalists, “notably through an immediate cease-fire in Baba Amr.”

“France is mobilized to accomplish the priority evacuation of its two citizens blocked in Homs, in liaison with Syrian authorities,” as well as the Red Cross and Red Crescent, ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said.

He said the government will not comment further for security reasons.

Spanish reporter Javier Espinosa, who works for the major Spanish daily El Mundo, also remained trapped in Baba Amr, El Mundo said on Wednesday. The paper said it had spoken briefly to him on Tuesday evening and he said he was “ok.” The paper said it did not think Espinosa is injured and did not know where he is staying.

In Damascus, a Foreign Ministry spokesman claimed Syria is committed to a humanitarian evacuation of foreign journalists from Homs province, but he alleged the government’s attempts were foiled by gunmen in the area.

Jihad Makdesi told reporters that foreign journalists sneaked into Syria illegally and some may have been smuggled in, “a matter which has raised skepticism about the nature of their mission and the reality of their work.”

Troops also entered the central town of Halfaya in the province of Hama, near Homs, after five days of intense shelling, activists said. They said the rebel-held town of Rastan, just north of Homs, was subjected to shelling and casualties were reported.

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