BEIRUT -- Syrian authorities said Tuesday they were ready to comply with a United Nations appeal to evacuate trapped citizens from the besieged central city of Homs "without preconditions," the official state news agency reported.
But the government blamed “armed terrorist groups,” its standard depiction of rebel fighters, for blocking civilians’ exit and using residents as “human shields,” said the Syrian state news site.
Opposition activists accuse the Syrian military of repeatedly shelling civilian districts in Homs and elsewhere. Rebels say they are protecting civilians from a military onslaught that has left thousands of people dead since the uprising began 15 months ago.
The government evacuation offer, sincere or not, underscores the fact that embattled President Bashar Assad wants to be seen as abiding by U.N. demands at a crucial juncture in the faltering peace process brokered by the world body.
The chief of the U.N. observer mission in Syria, Gen. Robert Mood, has called on both sides in the conflict to facilitate the evacuation of stranded civilians in Homs and other war-ravaged areas. Escalating violence has prompted the United Nations to suspend its unarmed observer mission.
The Norwegian general is scheduled to address the U.N. Security Council in New York on Tuesday about what he has termed escalating violence inside Syria. Council members will be weighing the future of the observer mission and the wavering peace plan devised by special envoy Kofi Annan.
Both sides have violated the peace plan, which, among other things, calls for a cease-fire and a withdrawal of troops and heavy armor from populated areas. But Annan says Assad has the “first responsibility” to implement the process.
Syria’s most potent ally, Russia, is heavily invested in the U.N. peace effort and does not want to see it fail. The collapse of Annan’s plan would likely escalate calls from Washington and other nations seeking Assad’s ouster for more decisive action by the world body, such as the imposition of sanctions or an arms embargo against Syria.
Russia, with veto power in the Security Council, says it is opposed to sanctions, an arms embargo or international intervention in Syria. Moscow says it is not tied to the survival of the Assad government but insists the Syrian people must decide their future.
On Monday, President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, meeting on the sidelines of a Group of 20 summit in Mexico, issued a joint appeal calling for the “immediate cessation of the violence” in Syria and endorsing “political transition to a democratic pluralist political system.” But the two leaders gave no indication how those elusive goals would be achieved, even as daily reports of violence and killing continued to emanate from Syria.
-- Patrick J. McDonnell
Photo: An image released by the Syrian opposition on Monday purports to show damage to a building caused during a Syrian security assault on the flashpoint city of Homs. The image could not be independently verified because of restrictions placed on outside media by the Syrian government. Credit: Agence France-Press / Shaam News Network.