Red Cross allowed to enter battered Homs district

Free Syrian Army supporters chant anti government slogans under snowfall on the outskirts of Idlib , north Syria, Feb. 29, 2012.
AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd

(CBS/AP) GENEVA - Syrian authorities have given aid groups permission to enter the besieged Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr, where a government offensive against opposition forces has intensified in recent days, the international Red Cross said Thursday.

A spokesman for the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross said the group received no explicit approval from rebels, but noted that they had previously appealed for humanitarian assistance to the district.

"The ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent received today from the Syrian authorities the green light to enter Baba Amr tomorrow to bring in much-needed assistance including food and medical aid, and to carry out evacuation operations," spokesman Hicham Hassan told The Associated Press.

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Sami Ibrahim, the spokesperson for the Syrian Network for Human Rights, who is currently inside Homs, confirmed to CBS News that the ICRC is set to enter Baba Amr Friday with medical supplies. He had been trying to get them to come up from Damascus Thursday, but they said it was too late in the day to travel. They expect to leave Damascus Friday morning.

Syrian forces moved into the Baba Amr Thursday, declaring it a "safe territory" after clearing it of "gunmen" after a nearly four-week-long military operation. The head of the Free Syrian Army, however, termed the rebels' withdrawal as a "tactical retreat" because of worsening humanitarian conditions, CBS News producer Ben Plesser reports.

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A Syrian official said Wednesday the government was planning a major offensive to "cleanse" Baba Amr once and for all as activists reported troops massing outside the neighborhood in western Homs.

A Syrian security source told CBS News on condition of anonymity that the district had been "cleansed" and soldiers were "checking every single street, tunnel and house looking for arms and gunmen."

An activist in Homs told CBS News correspondent Clarissa Ward that Syrian forces were going door to door in Baba Amr arresting any males over the age of 12. He also claimed that 16 men were killed earlier while fleeing the area.

However, in the face of the most recent violence, the activist said that "we are not frightened. We are strong together. There is no turning back."

As has been the case throughout much of the uprising, it is difficult to independently confirm claims from activists or Syrian government officials.

Meanwhile, in its first statement on Syria in seven months, the U.N. Security Council on Thursday deplored the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation there and called on the government to grant U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos "immediate and unhindered access."

The press statement is significant because it requires agreement of all 15 council members, including Russia and China, who have vetoed two resolutions condemning the Syrian government's bloody crackdown and calling for President Bashar Assad to step down.

While a press statement is not legally binding, it does reflect the growing concern of the council about the impact of the year-old conflict on Syria's civilian population.

"The Security Council press statement on Syria continues the enforceable pleas from the U.N. to the Assad regime to allow access to help the wounded and needy, but it is a small step in garnering support from Russia and China for more serious action to stop the violence," said CBS News foreign affairs analyst Pamela Falk.

Britain's U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, the current council president, stressed that the statement's focus was only on the humanitarian situation and humanitarian access -- not on the conflict itself, the political situation, or the appointment of former U.N. chief Kofi Annan as the new U.N.-Arab League special envoy to help find a peaceful solution to the conflict.

The U.N. has estimated that more than 7,500 people have been killed since the anti-Assad struggle started in March 2011, when protesters inspired by successful Arab Spring uprisings against dictators in Tunisia and Egypt took to the streets in Syria.

Activists put the total death toll at more than 8,000, most of them civilians.

The security council cited "the growing number of affected civilians, the lack of safe access to adequate medical services, and food shortages, particularly in areas affected by fighting and violence such as Homs, Hama, Deraa, Idlib."

It called on Syrian authorities "to allow immediate, full and unimpeded access of humanitarian personnel to all populations in need of assistance, in accordance with international law and guiding principles of humanitarian assistance."

The council expressed "deep disappointment" that Amos "was not granted authorization to visit Syria by the Syrian government in a timely manner, despite repeated requests and intense diplomatic contacts aimed at securing Syrian approval."

Amos said in a statement Wednesday that Syria had not approved her repeated requests to visit the country.

U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said the Syrians have delayed a decision several times. He said Amos has been "extremely flexible ... and she's still ready to go at a moment's notice."

Council diplomats said Russia, Syria's closest ally, had urged Assad's government to approve a visit by Amos.

The last statement approved by the Security Council was a stronger presidential statement on Aug. 3. Presidential statements become part of the council's record but, unlike resolutions, are not legally binding.

After months of deadlock, the council finally responded to the escalating violence in Syria, condemning Assad's forces for attacking civilians and committing human rights violations. It called on Syrian authorities to immediately end all violence and launch an inclusive political process that will allow the Syrian people to fully exercise "fundamental freedoms ... including that of expression and peaceful assembly."