Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Syria: reports of ground invasion on Baba Amr - live updates

• Activists claim troops advancing on Homs neighbourhood
• Official says Baba Amr will "cleaned" within hours
• UN draft to demand humanitarian access to Homs
• Activists killed rescue of photographer Paul Conroy

3.00pm: There continue to be conflicting reports of what's happening in Baba Amr.
A number of trusted sources have told my colleagues Martin Chulov and Peter Beaumont that that a ground invasion has not occurred.
Finally news from Bab al-Amr. #Syrian army not yet advanced from eastern outskirts. FSA gunfire has kept it at bay. So far #Homs
@martinchulov i am hearing same. been heavy clashes on outskirts but NO confirmation that Syrian army has gone in
29 Feb 1

 Activist Omar Shakir, who describes himself as a citizen journalist in the media office of Baba Amr, tweeted:
#syria #homs - The shelling continues on Baba Amr, however the Assad army has not entered Baba Amr 

Another activist Alexander Page, who is not in Homs, tweeted:
regime forces have intensified their attack on #BabaAmr in an attempt to weaken the resistance and open way for ground invasion #Homs #Syria
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2.18pm: The campaign group Avaaz, which helped coordinate the rescue of photographer Paul Conroy, claims that activists trapped in Baba Amr are preparing their wills in anticipation if a full-scale ground assault.
In a press statement it said:
Activists in other areas of Homs have now lost all contact with people inside the besieged neighborhood. Most of the city has been without electricity since 6pm last night.

The army renewed heavy shelling of Baba Amr and Insha'at early this morning.  "The explosions are shaking the whole city of Homs," an activist in Khalidiyeh told Avaaz. The army has a stranglehold on the area, and according to one source in Homs has succeeded in entering Baba Amr's al-Hakourah district. There are reports of heavy clashes between the army and the FSA which Avaaz is seeking to verify.   
The group also confirmed that Rastan, a town to the north of Homs is under renewed attack.
According to an activist in Rastan, the city is being bombarded from three sides. One home, belonging to the Farzat family, was hit several times while the family was inside.  Activists could not reach the home to look for survivors.
Earlier today, Homs activist Abo Emad told the Guardian that Rastan was being attacked (see 12.21pm).

2.14pm: Here's a roundup of the latest developments:
• There are reports – difficult to confirm – that the Syrian regime's forces have launched a major ground offensive inside Homs. Communication with people in Homs has become very erratic. A Syrian official told the Associated Press that the Baba Amr district of Homs would be "cleaned" within hours.

Diplomats from the six nation group have agreed in principle to a new round of nuclear negotiations with Tehran, official sources said. The have broadly accepted an Iranian offer, spelt out in a letter from Tehran's chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, on 14 February. "We have to use every opportunity to test Iran's willingness to talk," a European diplomat said.
The BBC Persian TV service has managed to almost double its audience in two years to 6 million, despite a campaign by the Iranian government to smear the Farsi-language service. Its audience soared by 94% from 3.1 million in 2009 to 6 million at the end of last year, the corporation said. 
Al-Jundi, a member of the Syrian National Council, told Reuters that he was injured in the city. 
I was putting up flags in Karm al-Zeitoun with other activists in preparation for a rally when two soldiers came in a yellow taxi, got out and started shooting at us. They hit me in the leg. Two others with me were badly injured. 
But Jundi appears to be fit enough to be broadcasting from the city today. His latest clip showed snow and rain falling in Homs today. 

The sound of some shelling can be heard in the background. Jundi appeared in front of the camera to say there was a lull in the fighting, but then gunfire could be heard. He insisted it was safe to broadcast. Once again his location is unclear. 
Reuters added:
The 26-year-old network engineer, who works in Saudi Arabia and is now on crutches, smuggled himself into Homs two weeks ago and has since been publishing photos and videos on his Facebook page on the destruction and victims of the bombardment.
Jundi said army shelling and rocket fire have intensified across Homs in the last few days.
"The shelling is mad," he said. "I was doing live Internet streaming yesterday when we heard the sound of tanks and saw them in the street behind us. We escaped to a different area. But nowhere is safe."
1.21pm: The Syrian uprising means good business for Lebanese arms dealers, Zoi Constantine writes in The National:
Asked where the weapons are bound, Abu Jihad [one of the dealers], who asked that his real name not be used, placed his hands over his eyes in a display of mock ignorance.
Then he says: "Everyone knows where the weapons are going - to the Jaish al-Hurr [Free Syrian Army]. At the end of the day, we are trying to make money and to look after our families … I say, just give me the money and take what you want. No problem."
A year ago, an RPG went for US$1,000 (Dh3,670), now it's $2,000. AK-47s have jumped from $1,500 to $2,300.
Technically, it is illegal in Lebanon to sell such weapons, but in a country that suffered through a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990 and still is afflicted by sectarian clashes, stocks are easy to come by.

1.09pm: Kofi Annan, the UN/Arab League envoy for Syria, said he will hold talks in New York from today with UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and member states, Reuters reports.
Annan, in a statement issued in Geneva where he is based, said he would hold a series of consultations in New York until Friday and then leave for Cairo to meet Arab League secretary-general Nabil Elaraby.
Annan, who served as UN secretary-general from 1997 to 2006, held separate talks in Geneva on Monday with Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi and French foreign minister Alain Juppe.
In his first statement on Friday, he called for the full cooperation of all parties to help bring an end to Syria's violence and human rights abuses.
12.48pm: The foreign secretary William Hague says he backs attempts to draft a new UN resolution on Syria.
Situation in Homs shows we were right to press for two UN Security Council Resolutions on #Syria & why we must prepare to do so again
Searing account of trapped civilians & merciless bombardment of Homs from UN Under Secretary General at the Security Council yesterday
12.37pm: "The situation in Baba Amro looks grim," according to Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director for Human Rights Watch.
But writing on a Facebook group for foreign correspondents which he administers, Bouckaert said he could not confirm the start of a ground invasion. 
There has been no communication with any of the activists in last 16 hrs or so, and no new videos uploaded by the activists. The last posts talked about very intense bombardment - they estimated they could hear 24 rounds hitting Baba Amro every 7 minutes. I don't have any confirmation of a ground assault but something bad is happening.
12.22pm: Syrian troops tried to enter the Baba Amr area yesterday but failed, according to a snatched conversation with an activist who claims to be in Homs.
Abo Emad, who says he communicates via Skype through complicated satellite system, said troops did try to enter from al-Bassel football stadium on Tuesday.
Speaking to the Guardian he said: 
They tried to enter to Baba Amr neighbourhood from the direction of al-Bassel stadium, and they couldn't do that. 
We don't have anything that new. We are still under siege.
He said anyone over 15-years-old was prevented from leaving Baba Amr.
Emad also claimed that troops were trying to enter the town of Rastan, near Homs. His account cannot be independently verified.
12.17pm: AFP says tanks have been seen massing outside Homs, but it too cannot confirm that a ground invasion has begun.

Hadi Abdullah of the Syrian Revolution General Commission told AFP by telephone that it was a likely prelude to a final assault.

Access to Homs has now been completely sealed off, according to commanders of the rebel Free Syrian Army, who said the regular army had also blown up an underground aqueduct that had been the last viable route for smuggling in desperately needed supplies.
Abdullah said power had been cut to most of the city, a measure he said was another sign of possible looming attack.

12.04pm: Syria's first lady Asma Assad (pictured voting in Sunday's referendum) is reported to have claimed her family's situation is "excellent".
The source for this is very circuitous - an account of a telephone conversation between Asma Assad and Jordan's Queen Rania, published in London's al-Quds al-Arabi and translated by an Israeli news site. 
But for what its worth Asma is reported to have told Rania: "Our situation is excellent and we have no concerns, thanks to allah." 
"Every revolution has its Lady Macbeth," sighed one Middle East expert in Paris. The dictators' wives are all very different, united by the varying degrees of hatred they inspired, eye-watering fortunes, expensive wardrobes and often a state-sanctioned so-called "feminism" or, like Asma al-Assad, charity work as a public distraction against the brutal realities of the regime.
11.57am: Trying to confirm reports of a ground invasion in Homs is difficult.
A source in the city told one of my colleagues that there is no evidence of an infantry attack.
The International Committee of the Red Cross repeated its calls for a ceasefire.
A spokesman said:
We cannot confirm the offensive. In any case we are concerned over the consequences of the violence on the population as the humanitarian situation is worsening by the hour.
We repeat again our call for a cessation of fighting in order to help all those in need of help.
Although the ICRC managed to send aid to Homs yesterday it will be difficult to distribute it to those in need in the current conditions.
11.55am: "In the face of Russian and Chinese vetoes, the failure of the United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria has removed all restraints on the government's use of repression," two academic experts on the Middle East say in an article for al-Jazeera.
Alia Brahimi and George Joffe look at the regional implications of the turmoil in Syria and conclude:

If the Syrian regime is left unbridled by its more muscular global and regional friends or Russia and China abandon the negotiating option, Saudi Arabia seems likely to lead an Arab bloc (supported at least tacitly by Washington) in arming its opponents. 

While new arms will surely enable a besieged population to better defend itself, they may well also instigate the "earthquake" threatened by Assad in October 2011. The Assad regime is determined to triumph, even if only through a Pyrrhic victory which could, in turn, explode throughout the region.
11.32am: Apologies for the lack of updates - information on the apparent assault on Baba Amr is hard to come by.
Activists claim Homs is under bombardment, but this is even harder than usual to confirm.
Homs: Massive, continuous explosions have been reported since early this morning in most of the city's neighbourhoods #syria
AP reports:
A Syrian official says security forces are advancing on the rebel-held neighborhood of Baba Amr in the restive central city of Homs.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, vowed Baba Amr would be "cleaned" within hours.
10.44am: Sky News producer Matog Saleh confirms the lack of communications with Baba Amr.
Not had any contact with the activists from inside #BabaAmr #Homs since last night. Something must be happening there #Syria
Last email i got from activists inside #BabaAmr #Homs was at 7.18pm last night(Dubai time) . Very unusual as they always sent out updates
The Guardian has also been unable to make contact with activists in the area today.
10.40am: Mulham al-Jundi said he had to stop that live broadcast mentioned in the previous update, because he had been a told a tank was on the way.
It was unclear where he was broadcasting from, or how. Sunday Times journalist Miles Amoore tweets:
No communication from inside Bab Amr now for 15 hours. Electricity cut, phones down, shelling of neighbourhoods n.e
Last message from the activists inside was: we are going to be killed
10.34am: Activist Mulham al-Jundi, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council, is broadcasting what he claims to be live footage from Homs, today via Ustream.
Gunfire and shelling can be heard on the feed. In the commentary Jundi he said the bombardment began at 6am this morning.
10.25am: There were reports yesterday – based on an unpublished interview – that President Moncef Marzouki of Tunisia is ready to offer asylum to Bashar al-Assad as part of a negotiated solution to end the Syrian conflict. 

The interview itself (a long one, in French) was published this morning in La Presse de Tunisie.
Marzouki's apparent hospitality towards Assad has not gone down well among all quarters in Tunisia, nor has his hosting of the international Friends of Syria gathering in Tunis last week.
The interviewer begins by asking Marzouki about demonstrations in Boussalem (a town north-west Tunis) where disgruntled protesters chanted: "The friends Boussalem rather than the friends of Syria." 
Maarzouki shrugs that off with the words: "Listen, we went from a situation where people accepted and tolerated everything to a situation where people no longer accept or tolerate anything. I would say it is almost normal; after revolutions, the level of people's demands is extremely high. They feel free, they feel responsible, they have demands, and this is quite normal."
He is then asked about Tunisia's policy on Syria:
It was said that this meeting of "Friends of Syria" was a stab in the back of the Syrian people, and you have heard my speech: I said that Tunisia was totally against militarisation, totally against foreign intervention. I assure you that it did not please many people, but Tunisia is an independent country, so we make an independent diplomatic policy. 
It is necessary to find a solution to let the dictator leave ... I very much regret that we are not in a logic of peace and the only logic for me is that, yes, one leaves an exit door for this dictator. Let him go where he wants, the essential part is that he leaves and stops killing people.
Asked if this would be based on the Yemeni model, he says:
Yes, according to the Yemeni model, it doesn't matter which country ... if he agreed to come to Tunisia, I guarantee that he would be given asylum. All that we want is that he stops killing Syrians. This is my one and only concern. Everything else is secondary.
I'd be willing to accept, without the slightest hesitation and give him all the guarantees. My only concern is that the killing of people stops. I cannot stand getting up every morning and watching the news and the death toll: 100 Syrians, 150 ... I find that unacceptable.
But during this intermediate phase, as we saw in Libya, there would perhaps be a need for a peacekeeping force that ensures the protection of minorities. Again, if our Syrian brothers don't ask for it, fine, I do think that we can have an Arab peacekeeping force and Tunisia would be very happy to participate.
10.08am: An activist told Reuters that troops have begun invading Baba Amr from the direction of al-Bassel football ground.

Baba Amr in a larger map
The location of the stadium is marked on this Google Map of Homs.
9.54am: Al-Jazeera's Rula Amin cites activists confirming an apparent ground invasion in parts Baba Amr.
Activists confirm security forces now on foot at the Basil football field at the edge of #Baba Amr, fighting is fierce with the FSA #Syri
Rula Amin @RulaAmin

Activists say Shelling continues on other neighborhoods in #Homs, on khalidiya, Bayyada and Inshaat #syria
Now Lebanon says activists fear a ground invasion, but it does has not confirmed the presence of troops on the ground. It says the Baba Amr area has been shelled for the 26th day in a row.
The presiding judge, Mohammed Shukri, made a formal request to renounce the case, without citing a reason, according to the TV report.
9.43am: Activists have again claimed ground invasion has began in the Baba Amr area or Homs, according to Reuters.
"The army is trying to go in with infantry from the direction of al-Bassel football field and fierce confrontations with automatic rifles and heavy machineguns are taking place there," activist Mohammad al-Homsi told Reuters from Homs.
He said the military had shelled the area heavily on Tuesday and overnight before the ground attack started. 
Sunday Times journalist, Miles Amoore, who has been close to the negotiations to secure the release of wounded journalists from the area, tweeted:
UPDATE: Three journalists still inside Bab Amr. There is now a ground assault under way. Communications inside are v v poor
8.50am: The Syrian Arab Red Crescent said it was "gravely concerned" by allegations that it is not trusted in Syria after wounded French journalist Edith Bouvier was reported to have twice refused to leave Homs in its ambulances. 
In a statement Abdulrahman Attar, president of Syrian Arab Red Crescent, said:
These allegations are not only untrue, but are an affront to the sacrifices our staff and volunteers continue to make to gain access and provide humanitarian aid to all Syrian people in need, regardless of their nationality, religion, or political affiliation.
The repetition of unfounded allegations questioning the neutrality and trustworthiness of the SARC is not only undermining trust in the organisation and putting the lives of our staff and volunteers at risk, it is also hampering our efforts to deliver lifesaving aid on the ground, to all people in need.
But an activist in Homs told the Guardian that the organisation was trusted by activists. 
Abo Emad said: "The Red Crescent is basically composed of our people, it is not composed by the regime. It is composed of volunteers who are are friends and brothers."
8.22am: (all times GMT) Welcome to Middle East Live. Diplomats have begun another round of negotiations on the crisis in Syria amid increasingly grim accounts of areas under siege by the Syrian army.
Here's a roundup of the latest developments: 
• The United States has drafted an outline for a new UN security council resolution demanding access for humanitarian aid workers in besieged Syrian towns and an end to the violence there, Reuters reports. French foreign minister Alain Juppe said the council was working on a third resolution focusing on the escalating humanitarian crisis caused by Assad's military operations against protesters that the United Nations says have killed over 7,500 civilians.
The pressing task now is for all sides to cease violence in the Syrian conflict, and to launch as soon as possible inclusive political dialogue and together deliberate on a reform plan.
Tunisia's president Moncef Marzouki [pictured] has offered to grant asylum to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad as part of negotiated solution to end the crisis, Tunisia Live reports. A spokesman said: "Tunisia, as stated by President Marzouki during his opening speech at the Friends of Syria Conference, seeks a political solution to the ongoing crisis in Syria. Slamming all doors in Assad's face would only escalate the Syrian regime's fury towards the civilian population."
They now unabashedly advocate for arming the Free Syrian Army. This is not an empty threat. The Saudis know how to procure and move weapons, and they have no shortage of cash. If Riyadh wants to arm the opposition, armed it shall be. And those who receive the weapons will likely be at least amenable to the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam that has spawned dangerous Islamist movements worldwide.
• Graphic video purporting to show the seven-day old corpses of the journalists Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik have been broadcast by activists. The clip says the bodies are being kept in a refrigerator in Baba Amr in Homs. "Until now neither the Red Cross, the Red Crescent, nor any human rights organisation have come for them," a commentary on the clip claims. Colvin and Ochlik were killed in a rocket attack last week on a makeshift media centre in Baba Amr that wounded two other journalists. 
Up to 13 activist were killed in the rescue mission to smuggle out Sunday Times photographer Paul Conroy from Homs. Three other western journalists, including Edith Bouvier, who was badly injured in last week's attack, were reported to be still trapped in Homs on Tuesday night. A claim by the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, that Bouvier had also been evacuated was later retracted by his office.
Before this engagement, had been criticised by some as "clicktivism" – implying a lazy form of protest involving little effort from its followers ...
Amid the bloodshed of Syria, the organisation's commitment is less likely to be queried. The question its critics are raising now is whether a group that started out in the high-tech safety of the internet has found itself out of its depth in a brutal conflict in the real world.
The idea that Assad's crimes against humanity might go unpunished is repugnant, but a face-saving exit plan, agreeable to all members of the international community – including Russia, China and Iran – might be the only way to remove Assad and set the country on the road to reform and democracy. The daily atrocities in Homs – like the terrifying attacks Gaddafi threatened in Benghazi – have, perfectly understandably, led to increased calls for military intervention.
Diplomats from the six nation group have agreed in principle to a new round of nuclear negotiations with Tehran, official sources said. The have broadly accepted an Iranian offer, spelt out in a letter from Tehran's chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, on 14 February. "We have to use every opportunity to test Iran's willingness to talk," a European diplomat said.
The BBC Persian TV service has managed to almost double its audience in two years to 6 million, despite a campaign by the Iranian government to smear the Farsi-language service. Its audience soared by 94% from 3.1 million in 2009 to 6 million at the end of last year, the corporation said. 

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