Red Cross Says Syria Allows Access to Town After UN Vote

Assad Prepares Attack on Rebel Town as UN Condemns Violence
A woman walks past a banner of President Bashar al-Assad hanging from the central bank building in Damascus. Photographer: Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it had won permission from President Bashar al-Assad’s government to enter a besieged Syrian town, hours after the United Nations Human Rights Council deplored “systematic violations of human rights."

The organization and its Syrian counterpart would be allowed to deliver emergency supplies and evacuate those wounded following a month-long siege of the central city of Homs, the Associated Press reported, citing a Red Cross official. Rebel forces said they were retreating from Homs after running out of ammunition. The Geneva-based UN rights council voted for the motion condemning Syria by 37 to three, with China, Russia and Cuba opposed.

The resolution “sends a forceful message about the international community’s outrage,” said Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, the U.S. representative to the council. “The three countries that chose to vote ‘no’ at the Human Rights Council today find themselves isolated from the strong international consensus on the need to protect the people of Syria.”

After two UN Security Council votes failed to stem violence now entering its 12th month, the U.S. is drafting a third resolution requiring Syria to allow humanitarian-aid workers into the country as part of the effort to squeeze Assad, according to a Western diplomat not authorized to speak to the media. The Syrian National Council, an opposition alliance, today established a military bureau to aid rebel fighters, accelerating the descent toward civil war.

Civil War Risk

“So long as the deadlock continues, there’s always a risk of civil war, and the responsibility for that won’t be SNC’s alone, but also of those who don’t support the Free Syrian Army and block solutions,” Mustafa Hamitoglu, an Istanbul-based member of the council, said by telephone. “The opposition has reached a point where it’s beginning to believe that the situation can only be resolved by taking up arms.”

The rights council’s resolution called for an “immediate end to all attacks on civilians” and said those responsible for human-rights violations, possibly including crimes against humanity, must be held accountable. The council acts as a moral authority and can ask the Security Council to take action when rights violations occur. It didn’t recommend that the Security Council refer Syria to the International Criminal Court, as had been suggested by the top UN human-rights official, Navi Pillay.

The Syrian National Council said its new military office would assist the rebel Free Syrian Army.

‘Things Have Changed’

Protests against Assad were peaceful for months “but things have changed” because the government started bombarding cities, SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun said at a televised news conference in Paris. The opposition group’s military bureau will be based in Turkey, he said, adding that it won’t replace the FSA’s command, which is located in a refugee camp in Hatay, a Turkish province near the Syrian border.

Britain withdrew all diplomatic staff from the Syrian capital and suspended embassy services yesterday, Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a written statement to Parliament today.

The British decision followed a deterioration of security in Damascus that “puts our embassy staff and premises at risk,” Hague said. The move “in no way reduces the U.K.’s commitment to active diplomacy to maintain pressure on the Assad regime to end the violence.”

Kidnap Plot

Turkey’s spy agency foiled an effort by its Syrian counterpart to kidnap the leader of the opposition army from a refugee camp, Sabah newspaper reported, without saying how it got the information. Prosecutors confirmed the accuracy of the report, state-run Anatolia news agency said today.

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry told the news agency on Feb. 28 that reports in the London-based Times about Turkey turning a blind eye to weapons transfers to Assad’s regime are untrue.

The Syrian government has severed all communications between the rebel areas of Homs and the outside world ahead of an assault, opposition activists told AP today.

Assad has faced mounting international pressure to halt the onslaught that has left more than 7,500 civilians dead, according to the UN. Russia and China have twice vetoed UN Security Council resolutions calling for Assad to step down.

Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria who was recalled because of concerns about his security, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today that Assad’s military is under greater stress than it was even three or four months ago.

A meeting between Gulf Arab and Russian ministers planned for March 7 to discuss the Syrian crisis has been postponed, Al Arabiya television reported.

Crimes Against Humanity

The Human Rights Council’s vote came a day after members discussed a report saying Syrian government officials were responsible for crimes against humanity against opposition members. The panel said it would take additional steps after the forthcoming dialogue with its commission of inquiry.

Syria’s army has been shelling Homs for a month and has launched operations against other parts of the country where the opposition is concentrated, including Idlib in the north and towns near Aleppo by the Turkish border. Some soldiers have defected from Assad’s forces as he seeks to reaffirm his mandate as Syria’s leader following a Feb. 26 referendum on a new constitution.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his predecessor Kofi Annan, the new UN and Arab League joint special envoy to Syria, met in New York yesterday to discuss measures to end the violence. Annan said he plans to go to Syria “fairly soon,” following talks at the Arab League in Cairo and said his message to Assad is “the killing and violence must stop.”

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