Pressure mounts on Assad as help finally reaches Homs

Pressure mounts on Assad as help finally reaches Homs

TUNIS - Western and Arab nations ratcheted up pressure on Syria’s Bashar al-Assad Friday as the Red Cross announced it had finally been able to enter a besieged Homs district to evacuate casualties.

By Afp

Published: Sat 25 Feb 2012, 8:53 AM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 2:25 PM

A meeting of more than 60 foreign ministers in Tunisia saw calls for Arab peacekeepers to intervene and for the arming of the opposition, as well as a US warning that Assad would pay a heavy price for defying international will.

In the first sign that growing pressure might be having an effect, the International Committee of the Red Cross said its ambulances entered the Baba Amr district to evacuate casualties from bombardment by regime forces. They include two wounded Western journalists and the bodies of two others.

“The ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent are on the spot in Baba Amr, attempting to evacuate as soon as possible everyone in need of urgent help,” the ICRC spokesman in Damascus, Saleh Dabbakeh, told AFP.

In Tunis, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Assad would pay a “heavy cost” for ignoring the will of the international community after almost a year of brutal crackdowns on protesters.

At least 22 more civilians were killed in renewed violence on Friday as the ministers met in Tunisia for the first “Friends of Syria” conference.

Host nation Tunisia called for an Arab peacekeeping force to be sent in to help end to the killings, and for Assad to be granted immunity to persuade him to stand down.

The meeting comes two days before Syrians vote on a new constitution that could end 50 years of the rule of the Baath Party, though keep wide powers with the president.

“The current situation demands an Arab intervention in the framework of the League, an Arab force to keep peace and security, to accompany diplomatic efforts to convince Bashar to leave,” Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki said.

“A political solution must be found, such as granting the Syrian president, his family and members of his regime judicial immunity and a place to seek refuge, which Russia could offer.”

Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani backed the call for peacekeepers.

Such a force was needed to maintain security, open humanitarian corridors and implement Arab League decisions on the crisis, he said.

More than 7,600 people have been killed since the uprising against Assad’s rule erupted last March, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

Clinton, as she also announced $10 million in aid for humanitarian efforts, said the meeting should send a “clear message” to Assad: “You will pay a heavy cost for ignoring the will of the international community and violating the human rights of your people.”

The main opposition umbrella group the Syrian National Council has warned that military intervention might be the “only option” to end the crackdown.

Western and Arab nations however have so far rejected the idea of a foreign mission like the operation that helped topple Moamer Kadhafi’s regime in Libya.

But Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal backed the idea of arming Syria’s opposition.

“I think it’s an excellent idea... because they have to protect themselves,” he told journalists just before going into a meeting with Clinton.

Clinton on Thursday described the SNC as a “credible representative” that would demonstrate that “there is an alternative” to Assad’s regime.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe also Friday endorsed the SNC as “the legitimate representative of the Syrian opposition... the pole around which the opposition must organise”.

Friday’s meeting would call for tougher sanctions, he told journalists.

“The conference will make a call for strengthening sanctions in a way to make the regime fold,” Juppe said.

Russia and China however were notable by their absence, highlighting the difficulty in building an international consensus on Syria.

Both countries have frustrated efforts to rein in Assad’s regime, including by vetoing UN Security Council resolutions.

One Syria-based opposition group, the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCCDC), also said it was boycotting the Tunis conference, complaining of exclusion and fearing escalated militarisation.

As the meeting opened in Tunis, police armed with batons beat back several dozen protesters trying to enter the venue chanting “No to the conference!” and “No meeting of the enemies of Arab nations”.

And in Syria, the bloodshed continued.

At least four civilians were killed as Syrian forces shelled the rebel-held area of Homs for the 21st straight day, while tens of thousands protested across the country, monitors said.

Syrian forces also killed 18 civilians, including seven members of the same family, in the central Syrian province of Hama, a monitoring group said.

Dabbakeh of the Red Cross said at least 11 ambulances and other vehicles were in Baba Amr and that relief teams would be aiming to help everyone in need, not just the wounded foreign reporters.

“If we go to Homs, it will not be only to evacuate the journalists but also for the people of Homs that need assistance and medical evacuation,” he said.

US journalist Marie Colvin and French photojournalist Remi Ochlik were killed on Wednesday when a rocket hit a makeshift media centre in Baba Amr.

French reporter Edith Bouvier and British photographer Paul Conroy both suffered leg wounds in the same rocket attack.

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