Red Cross set to enter battle-weary Syrian city of Homs
BEIRUT -- The International Committee of the Red Cross said Wednesday that it had received assurances from Syrian government and opposition forces on a plan to evacuate and assist people stranded in the battle-torn city of Homs.
"Hundreds of civilians are stuck in the old city of Homs, unable to leave and find refuge in safer areas, because of the ongoing armed confrontations," Beatrice Megevand-Roggo, head of the Red Cross' operations for the Near and Middle East, said in a statement. "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."
The United Nations has already issued a plea for both sides in the Syrian conflict to allow humanitarian access to Homs, epicenter of the 15-month-old revolt against President Bashar Assad.
Broad swaths of Homs have been destroyed in the fighting, and much of its population has fled a metropolitan area that once was home to 1 million people, a once-bustling urban hub on the road between Damascus, the capital, and the northern city of Aleppo, the commercial center.
Recent video from Homs indicates that some neighborhoods, such as the Babr Amr district, once a rebel stronghold, have been reduced to smashed and broken ghost towns. Intensive fighting has resumed in the last 10 days as government forces try to retake areas occupied by insurgents.
But efforts to rescue stranded civilians have become caught up in the poisoned atmosphere of Syria's raging civil strife.
The government has accused rebels of using civilians as "human shields" and preventing evacuations. The rebels have accused government forces of indiscriminate bombardment of civilian districts and the targeting of field clinics.
The Red Cross said now that Syrian authorities and opposition forces have agreed to a request for a pause in the fighting to allow the humanitarian mission, representatives of that group and the Red Crescent were preparing to enter the old city and other hard-hit neighborhoods.
The first priority, the group said, is to evacuate the wounded and sick to safer areas where they can be treated. It said it also wants to bring out trapped civilians and deliver desperately needed medical aid and supplies.
-- Patrick J. McDonnell
Photo: An image released by the Syrian opposition's Shaam News Network shows destruction in a neighborhood in Homs on Tuesday. Credit: AFP / Ho / Shaam News Network