- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 1, 2012

Syrian opposition fighters pulled out of a stronghold in the restive western city of Homs on Thursday, saying they did not have enough weapons to defend the civilians.

Soon after the announcement of the withdrawal, President Bashar Assad’s regime agreed to let the Red Cross bring humanitarian aid into the Baba Amr neighborhood.

The rebels decided “to strategically withdraw for the sake of the civilians remaining inside the neighborhood,” said Omar Shakir, a spokesman for the rebels’ Baba Amr Brigade.

“The humanitarian situation is at its worst, as there is no food whatsoever, no medicines, no water and no electricity,” he said. “There is no communication in the area, thus making matters much worse. We are also lacking in enough arms to defend the civilians.”

Homs, a hotbed of the 11-month-long uprising against the Assad regime, has been under siege from Syrian troops since Feb. 4.

Internet and phone connections in Baba Amr remained cut off for a second day, and residents in other parts of Homs said they had heard loud explosions from the direction of the neighborhood earlier in the day.

Water and electricity to parts of the city have been cut off, and food and medical supplies are running dangerously low.

The lack of electricity made it difficult to operate the freezers in which the bodies of slain American-born journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik were stored. They were killed on Feb. 22, when the building where they were staying was shelled by Syrian troops.

They were buried in Baba Amr on Monday because their bodies had started to decompose, said Sami Ibrahim, a Homs-based spokesman for the Syrian Network of Human Rights.

Meanwhile, Saleh Dabbakeh, a Damascus-based spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the humanitarian group intended to take aid into Baba Amr on Friday morning.

“We have received the green light from the authorities to enter Baba Amr and take in food assistance and medical aid, and to try and evacuate as many wounded as well,” he said in a phone interview.

The Assad regime has, however, not agreed to a Red Cross request for a two-hour daily cease-fire. Mr. Dabbakeh said humanitarian operations would depend on the security situation.

Syrian soldiers entered Baba Amr on Thursday afternoon as the opposition fighters melted away.
At least 27 people were killed in Baba Amr. The fighting had stopped by nightfall on Thursday, but residents said Syrian troops were destroying empty houses and cars.

“Every building that was not shelled before is now a target. No one can stop them,” said Mr. Ibrahim.

Thousands of residents have fled the neighborhood. Baba Amr’s population, which was originally 95,000, has dropped to around 6,000.

For the first time in the conflict, troops fired Scud missiles at the neighborhood on Wednesday, Mr. Ibrahim said. Helicopter gunships and also tanks have been used in the fighting.

Meanwhile, Syria’s main opposition group set up a “military bureau” to unite the armed uprising against the Assad regime.

The Syrian National Council said the bureau will “track the armed opposition groups, organize and unify their ranks under one central command.”

A unified armed opposition would likely provide some reassurance to the opposition’s international supporters who have expressed concerns about weapons falling into the hands of extremists.

The Syrian National Council said it would provide the Free Syrian Army, made up of defectors from Syria’s military, with “all the support it needs to completely fulfill its defense responsibilities, including securing necessary protection for civilians.”

The council has urged U.S., European and Arab officials not to prevent individual countries from arming the opposition.

The U.S. and its European allies have not publicly endorsed arming the Syrian opposition, and their sanctions prevent such aid.

However, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal has said arming the rebels would be an “excellent idea.”

At a congressional hearing Thursday, Sen. John F. Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said there are “still serious questions” about Syrian opposition groups, especially the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army.

“A debate has started in Congress and in the region about whether - and how - to support the Free Syrian Army,” the Massachusetts Democrats and said. “It is critical that we proceed with extreme caution and with our eyes wide open.

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