Syrian troops apparently halt Homs shelling as some wounded are evacuated

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 24, 2012 

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian Arab Red Crescent workers rescued a small number of wounded civilians Friday from the hard-hit Baba Amr neighborhood of the city of Homs as representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian government negotiated over a ceasefire that would allow still larger evacuations.

The barrage of mortar and rocket fire that had rained down on the neighborhood came to a halt apparently for the first time in three weeks as the negotiations took place.

Two journalists wounded Wednesday in a hail of fire that killed two of their colleagues were apparently not among the seven women and children rescued Friday and taken to a local Homs hospital. But diplomatic efforts to bring the wounded journalists to safety were continuing, and an ICRC spokesman in Damascus said Red Cross officials were trying to "evacuate all persons in need of help with no exception whatsoever."

It was unclear whether that would include not just the journalists, Edith Bouvier of France and Paul Conroy of Britain, but also wounded anti-government fighters.

Homs has become the most deadly city in Syria as the government of President Bashar Assad has sought to end a rebellion that began last year. A halt to the shelling in Homs, even for a brief period, would mark a break in the government's furious assault after weeks of bloodshed. At least 120 people have been killed in the past two days in Homs, according to activists, with many bodies remaining trapped under rubble.

Saleh Dabbakeh, the ICRC spokesman in Damascus, said he could not say whether the shelling of the area had ceased during the negotiations, but he said the fact that the talks were taking place indicated that it had.

"If we are there and trying to evacuate, I don't think there would be any kind of shelling," he said.

Dabbakeh said there was "trouble and unrest in other parts of the country," but he provided no locations. "It's localized, it's in certain provinces," he said.

Bouvier and Conroy, who entered the country illegally to cover the Syrian army's onslaught against the stronghold of the rebel Free Syrian Army, appeared in a video on Thursday asking to be allowed safe passage out of Baba Amr.

Dabbakeh said Friday's evacuations were not the first since the beginning of the most recent army campaign against Baba Amr. He said that the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent since Feb. 11 have been able to get two convoys of evacuees out of Homs and three out of the area around the western town of Zabadani.

He also said that Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers have been handing out humanitarian assistance and providing first aid to residents of Homs, Syria's third largest city, at nine distribution points.

"Assistance never really stopped," said Dabbakeh. "There were certain periods of time when it was difficult, sometimes very difficult."

Meanwhile, the ICRC was continuing to negotiate an agreement between the Assad regime and opposition representatives for a daily two-hour nationwide "humanitarian pause" in the fighting to allow for deliveries of food, medicines and other supplies to violence-hit towns and cities, he said.

Syrian activists said Friday that the journalists were waiting to be evacuated until there was a diplomatic presence involved.

"The wounded journalists are not in a safe place," said Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch, who has been part of the effort to evacuate Bouvier and Conroy. Both were wounded in the attack that killed at least six others, including American journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik.

"People are literally risking their lives to keep them safe," Bouckaert said.

On the Lebanese-Syrian border, it has become clear that movement in and out of Syria is extremely difficult, as Syrian rebels worked this week to evacuate the wounded, with little success. Some expressed frustration that so much attention was being paid to foreign journalists when Syrians had been suffering similarly for months.

According to activists and smugglers, the situation in Homs and the nearby city of al Qusayr had been worsening before the temporary ceasefire. A Spanish journalist tweeting from inside Baba Amr reported gun battles at the entrance to the neighborhood, suggesting Syrian government troops were close to entering it.

"The rocket attacks are unbelievable," said a Syrian movie director who entered Baba Amr last week. The filmmaker, who asked not to be identified because he feared for the safety of family members still in Syria, was also wounded in the attack on the media center where Conroy and Bouvier were injured but had been able to reach Beirut.

"The rocket attacks start around 5 a.m. and end around 6 p.m.," he said. "During the night there are not a lot of rocket attacks, but the snipers shoot at anything that moves."

"Marie and Remi were together, walking out of the flat when the third rocket hit them. I was three meters away from them, in the flat. They were dead. Paul, the British journalist, was just a meter away on my left," the filmmaker said. "Me and Paul got fragments in our legs, but the fragment that hit him was much bigger than mine. Edith was hit by another fragment in her leg, and a door fell on her after the rocket. William had to carry her to the back room where all of us waited for a car. Less than five minutes later a car came and we were transferred to a field hospital."

"After they hit the media office, they hit the field hospital," the filmmaker said. "It was on the ground floor of a four-story building, and it destroyed the top two floors."

The filmmaker praised the Free Syrian Army, the loose network of army defectors that have taken up arms against Assad's government.

"The Free Syrian Army tried to protect us with their lives, and they did everything they could to protect us," he said.

(Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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