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Syria bars aid to reeling Homs

Convoy from Red Cross had been approved

Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

French journalist Edith Bouvier was surrounded by friends and medical workers after her arrival in France. She was one of two journalists who had been smuggled out of Syria.

BEIRUT - Syrian authorities blocked, without explanation, an officially sanctioned Red Cross convoy laden with food and medical supplies from entering a devastated neighborhood in the central city of Homs yesterday, one day after the army overwhelmed the main rebel stronghold there after a monthlong siege.

There were unconfirmed reports that Syrian security forces were conducting house-to-house searches and summary executions in the neighborhood, Baba Amr, while the convoy of seven Red Cross trucks was parked at the edge of the area, where military sentries refused to grant it entry despite official approval 24 hours earlier.

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It was unclear why the Syrian military had blocked the convoy. But the convoy organizers said officials had told them that the Baba Amr neighborhood was still not safe. There was possibly a legitimate concern about mines and other booby traps, organizers said, but they were not given a precise reason.

The Red Cross rebuked the Syrian government in a statement that reflected the growing international frustration with delays on funneling help to civilians whose lives have been upended by the uprising in Syria, which is now nearly a year old.

“It is unacceptable that people who have been in need of emergency assistance for weeks have still not received any help,’’ Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said in a statement from its headquarters in Geneva.

He said the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society, which together had sent the convoy to Homs in the morning, waited all day to enter Baba Amr.

“We are staying in Homs tonight in the hope of entering Baba Amr in the very near future,’’ Kellenberger said. “In addition, many families have fled Baba Amr, and we will help them as soon as we possibly can.’’

He said the “humanitarian situation was very serious then and it is worse now.’’

The convoy’s arrival in Homs came as at least 12 people, including children, were killed in an apparent rocket or mortar attack by the Syrian army on antigovernment protesters in Rastan, another central Syrian city roiled by the uprising. Graphic video posted online showed hundreds of people protesting, then fleeing in panic at the rocket explosion, which sent body parts flying.

If it succeeds in entering Baba Amr, the relief convoy will give international officials an opportunity to make a detailed assessment of the fighting there since dissident forces withdrew Thursday.

The seven-truck convoy was the fourth in the last two weeks sent by the Red Cross to Homs in conjunction with the Red Crescent Society, which has 10 distribution points across the city. But the violence in Baba Amr had prevented the establishment of one there.

There were only sketchy details of what was actually needed because communications were so poor, organizers said.

‘’We don’t have any concrete information about what is going on inside,’’ said Hicham Hassan, a Red Cross spokesman.

Friday has traditionally been the day for mass protests across the country, and they even took place in some Homs neighborhoods despite the violence. With all the talk by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others of providing arms to the opposition, demonstrators chose the collective name this week of “The Friday of Equipping the Free Syrian Army.’’

A heavy security presence in central Damascus kept the city completely shut down, with no buses or other mass transportation vehicles allowed downtown. Similar restrictions were imposed on the suburbs, but several demonstrations erupted that were quickly dispersed by government thugs, the shabiha, witnesses said.

“The Assad regime wants to frighten us by making big massacre in Baba Amr,’’ said Subhi, a 24-year-old protester in the suburb of Midan. “I want to say to Bashar, if you kill more, we will demonstrate more. We will not return to our homes after a year of uprising.’’

In more distant suburbs like Saqba, hundreds managed to gather to demonstrate, and an activist reached by telephone in Aleppo said numerous small protests had been scattered around the city, Syria’s largest.

He said the security services had gathered around mosques to prevent any demonstrations and that four tanks were deployed on the main highway leading into Aleppo from the north.

France, meanwhile, became the latest Western nation to close its embassy in Damascus in a gesture of protest directed at President Bashar Assad.

The fighting in Syria has spurred deep international division, with China and Russia vetoing a UN Security Council resolution, promoted by Arab and Western nations, that called on Assad to step aside.

There were new signs Yesterday, however, that even Russia’s patience with Assad was wearing thin.

In an interview with six foreign newspapers in Moscow, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia distanced himself somewhat from Assad, refusing to answer the question of whether he could survive as a leader.

“I don’t know. I can’t make this kind of assessment,’’ he said. “It is perfectly obvious that there are serious domestic problems. The reforms that were proposed obviously should have been implemented long ago. I don’t know whether Syrian society - the government forces and the opposition - can come to an agreement, find some consensus that is acceptable to everyone, but that would have been the best solution.’’

‘’The first thing that we should do now is to end the armed conflict and bloodletting,’’ he said, accusing the West of siding with the Syrian opposition against Assad.

Two French journalists who had been smuggled out of Baba Amr on Thursday as resistance collapsed, Edith Bouvier of Le Figaro and the photographer William Daniels, were flown out of Beirut yesterday and returned home.

Bouvier was wounded in the attack last week that killed Marie Colvin, an American war correspondent working for The Sunday Times of London, and French photographer Remi Ochlik. The bodies of Colvin and Ochlik have been turned over to the Red Cross and the Red Crescent and were transported to a Damascus hospital, where they will be stored awaiting repatriation, said Hassan, the Red Cross spokesman.

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