Syrian rebels withdraw from enclave after siege

A man walks next to a damaged building due to clashes between the Free Syrian Army and government forces on the outskirts of Idlib, north Syria, March 1, 2012.
AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd

(AP) BEIRUT - After a punishing, monthlong military siege, Syrian rebels made what they called a "tactical retreat" Thursday from a key district in Homs, saying they were running low on weapons and the humanitarian conditions were unbearable.

Within hours of the rebels' withdrawal, President Bashar Assad's regime granted permission for the International Committee of the Red Cross to enter the neighborhood of Baba Amr, which had become a symbol of the resistance.

Human rights workers have been appealing for access for weeks to deliver food, water and medicine, and to help evacuate the wounded from an area that has been sealed off and attacked by the government since early February.

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

Also Thursday, Syria's main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, formed a military bureau to help organize the armed resistance and funnel weapons to rebels — a sign of how deeply militarized the conflict has become over the past year.

Wounded French journalist evacuated from Syria
U.S. journalist allegedly buried in Syria
Red Cross allowed to enter battered Homs district

The uprising began in March 2011 with mostly peaceful protests, but a fierce government crackdown has led many army defectors and others to take up arms and fight back, with more than 7,500 estimated killed. The siege of Baba Amr has been among the deadliest assaults as Syrian forces bombarded the district with shells and snipers fired from rooftops.

Late Thursday, a Syrian official said the army had entered and taken control of the area.

The Local Coordination Committees said there were 45 deaths recorded in Syria Thursday, 24 of them in Homs.

Hundreds of people were killed and an unknown number wounded in Baba Amr; bloodied victims were forced to seek help in makeshift clinics with dwindling supplies amid a frigid winter. .

"Assad's army has destroyed most of the homes in the neighborhood," said a statement posted online by the Baba Amr rebels' brigade about the retreat. They said the decision was based on "worsening humanitarian conditions, lack of food and medicine and water, electricity and communication cuts as well as shortages in weapons."

"We will return, God willing," the statement said.

The retreat came one day after a Syrian official said the government was planning a major offensive to "cleanse" Baba Amr once and for all, and activists reported troops massing outside the neighborhood.

Two French journalists, Edith Bouvier and William Daniels, have escaped to Lebanon after being trapped in Baba Amr, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said late Thursday.

"I had (Bouvier) on the phone. She is with her colleague, outside Syria," Sarkozy said during an impromptu press briefing during an EU summit.

"She has suffered a lot but she will give the details herself," Sarkozy said.

Bouvier was wounded last week in a government rocket attack on a makeshift media center that killed American-born journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik. Bouvier is asking for a European ambassador to accompany any evacuation, said Burhan Ghalioun, head of the opposition Syrian National Council, at a Paris news conference.

Earlier Thursday, a Syrian activist posted videos online that he said showed the burials of Colvin and Ochlik in Baba Amr on Monday. The content of the videos could not be independently confirmed, and the bodies could not be positively identified through the pictures.

Homs is Syria's third-largest city with about 1 million people. Activists estimated 100,000 people lived in Baba Amr before the revolt, but many have fled and it is unclear how many are left. The rebels estimate that 4,000 people remain.

Rebels have relocated from some areas but said the resistance in Baba Amr "is still strong," Ghalioun said.

He also 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, which is made up mainly of army defectors.

A Turkey-based member of the FSA confirmed that the council coordinated the move with the rebel fighters.

"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 said, adding that any weapons flowing into the country should go through the council.

Still, he tried to play down the risks of an all-out civil war.

"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."