Syrian forces seize control of Homs district

(CBS/AP) - Syrian forces moved into the besieged rebel-held district of Baba Amr in Homs, 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.

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.

A statement by the Baba Amr rebels brigade said the decision to retreat was made to spare some 4,000 civilian residents who insisted on staying in their homes.

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Activists said that since the first week of February, government forces have showered parts of Homs, mainly Baba Amr, with daily barrages of mortars, tank shells and rockets. The violence has caused many to flee the city, while those who remain are trapped inside, including two Western journalists, Edith Bouvier and William Daniels.

The fate of the foreign journalists has drawn attention to Homs, which has emerged as a key battleground between government forces and those seeking to end the regime of President Bashar Assad. The journalists' status remained unclear amid Thursday's developments, but within hours of the rebels' withdrawal, President Bashar Assad's government granted permission for the International Committee of the Red Cross to enter Baba Amr on Friday.

Human rights workers have been appealing for access to Baba Amr for weeks.

"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.

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.

Earlier in the day, state-run TV said the army will "soon liberate and purify" Homs from terrorists. There were reports that shelling by Syrian forces targeted satellite Internet devices, preventing the opposition and activists from uploading video accounts on YouTube.

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The opposition in Homs also reported a widespread signal interference that made it nearly impossible to use satellite telephones to get word out of Baba Amr.

Authorities had previously blocked land and mobile phone lines, but activists were able to communicate with the outside world with satellite phones.

Homs is about 12 miles northeast of the frontier with Lebanon, and cross-border smuggling has been key to the city's survival and to arming the rebels because of the links between Sunnis in northern Lebanon and the Sunni majority in Homs.

Burhan Ghalioun, head of the opposition Syrian National Council, told a news conference in Paris that rebels have relocated from some areas but said the resistance in Baba Amr "is still strong." It was not immediately clear what escape route the rebels used.

Ghalioun laid out the plans for a military council to organize and unify all armed resistance to Assad's regime.

The Paris-based leadership of the Syrian National Council said its plan was coordinated with the most potent armed opposition force — the Free Syrian Army — made up mainly of army defectors.

"The revolution started peacefully and kept up its peaceful nature for months, but the reality today is different and the SNC must shoulder its responsibilities in the face of this new reality," Ghalioun told reporters in Paris, saying any weapons flowing into the country should go through the council.

Still he tried to play down the risks of all-out civil war between the regime and the opposition.

"We want to control the use of weapons so that there won't be a civil war," he said. "Our aim is to help avoid civil war."

The Syrian government blames the uprising on Islamist extremists and denies reports the army has targeted civilians. It says at least 2,000 members of the security forces have been killed combating "armed gangs and terrorists" bent on destabilizing Syria.

It has lately barred most media from operating in the country.

At the start of the Syrian revolt nearly a year ago, many protesters said they wanted to remain peaceful. But as the assault continued, an armed insurgency comprised largely of defectors from the military has developed to fight the regime.

Syria's army has intensified the attacks since a resolution supported by the Arab League aimed at installing a transitional government, to be followed by elections, was vetoed at the United Nations Security Council by Russia and China on Feb. 4.

Assad is under mounting pressure, coordinated by nations calling themselves the Friends of Syria, to stop the killings. The U.S. is reportedly now drafting a new resolution demanding that Syria allow humanitarian aid workers into the country as part of the effort to squeeze Assad.

Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the new U.N. special envoy to Syria, said he was planning to go to Damascus "fairly soon," following talks at the Arab League in Cairo. The U.N. estimates more than 7,500 civilians have died since the uprising began in March.

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

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.

In Kuwait, the parliament Thursday passed a non-binding resolution calling on the government to help arm the Syrian opposition and to break diplomatic ties with Assad's regime. A day earlier, parliament passed a non-binding resolution urging the government to recognize the SNC as the country's sole representatives.

There was no immediate reaction from the rulers in the oil-rich Gulf state. Some lawmakers also have proposed severing diplomatic ties with Assad's regime, but the issue has not come up for full debate.

CBS News' George Baghdadi contributed to this report.