Red Cross aims to aid war-beaten Syria district

A family leaves their house after the building was hit by a Syrian Army tank in Idlib, Syria, March 4, 2012. AP Photo

(AP) DAMASCUS, Syria - A Red Cross team plans to distribute aid to residents in part of a war-battered neighborhood in the central Syrian city of Homs on Monday, group officials said, following days of being kept out by Syrian forces.

Fears that thousands of civilians in the Baba Amr neighborhood are suffering from severe cold and hunger have been mounting since government forces seized the district from rebels last week. Before its capture the district faced weeks of siege and daily shelling that activists say killed hundreds of people.

The Syrian government said the Red Cross could go in after regime forces captured the area on Thursday, but troops on the ground denied Red Cross access, citing security concerns.

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The head of the humanitarian group's local branch, the Syrian Red Crescent in Homs province, said Monday that aid teams would enter part of the area. Shueib Shaaban said authorities said the group could enter all of Baba Amr on Tuesday and that the group was sending three trucks with aid for the neighborhood.

In the past, it has said the greatest needs are food, medical supplies and blankets, due to frigid temperatures and snowfall.

The violence in Homs sent many families fleeing into nearby neighborhoods and villages, and the Red Cross distributed milk powder, medicine, food and blankets on Sunday to some 400 displaced families in the Abel village south of the city, Shaaban said. That aid continued Monday.

The central city of Homs, Syria's third largest with one million residents, has emerged as a central battleground in the 11-month-old uprising against authoritarian President Bashar Assad. The uprising started in March 2011 with protests in some of the country's impoverished hinterlands.

The protests spread as the government waged a bloody crackdown on dissent, and many in the opposition have taken up arms to defend themselves and attack government troops. The U.N. says more than 7,500 people have been killed in the uprising. Activists place the number at more than 8,000.

The violence has fueled increasing international condemnation of the Assad regime. The U.S. has called for him to step down, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said he could be considered a war criminal. The European Union said it would document alleged war crimes in Syria to set the stage for a "day of reckoning" for the country's leadership, in the way that former Yugoslav leaders were tried for war crimes in the 1990s by a U.N. tribunal.

Russia and China have stood by stood by Assad, however, rejecting all forms of interference in Syria's affairs and protecting Syria from condemnation by the U.N. Security Council.

Syria on Monday lauded the return of Vladimir Putin to the Russian presidency, saying his "strong man" status would reshape international relations.

In an editorial, the state-run Tishrin daily said Putin would respect "countries' interests and unity and not interfere in their internal affairs."

Preliminarily election results Monday said Putin got more than 63 percent of the vote against four challengers. Opposition leaders and independent observers say there was widespread vote fraud.

Observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe will present their findings later Monday.

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