BEIRUT (AP) — Red Cross teams began handing out food and blankets in central Homs province on Sunday after days of delays, helping families who fled the besieged neighborhood of Baba Amr and took shelter in nearby villages.
Government forces have blocked humanitarian access to Baba Amr since Friday, the day after troops seized it from rebels, and it remained blocked on Sunday. Opposition fighters had been in control of the neighborhood for several months, and a regime offensive on Homs that began in early February aimed to retake rebel-held neighborhoods inside the city.
Government forces managed to retake Baba Amr after nearly a month of intense and relentless shelling and activists say hundreds were killed in the daily bombardments that led up to the final battle on Thursday. Some Baba Amr residents died when, in desperation, they dared to venture out of their homes to forage for food.
Activists have said residents face a humanitarian catastrophe in Baba Amr and other parts of Homs, Syria's third-largest city with a population of one million. Electricity, water and communications have been cut off in frigid temperatures; food was running low and many are too scared to venture out.
The government had said it would allow the Red Cross into Baba Amr on Friday but then blocked their access for days, citing security concerns. But in the meantime, activists accused Syrian forces of killing tens of residents execution-style and burning homes in revenge attacks against those believed to be supporting the rebels.
As the brutal siege of Homs dragged on, Western pressure on President Bashar Assad intensified. The U.S. has called for Assad to step down and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said he could be considered a war criminal. The European Union committed itself to document war crimes in Syria to set the stage for a "day of reckoning" for the country's leadership, in the way that former Yugoslav leaders were tried for war crimes in the 1990s by a special U.N. tribunal.
While they continue to appeal for unfettered access to Homs, Red Cross workers were focusing on distributing aid in the village of Abel, about two miles (three kilometers) from Homs, and the Inshaat and Tawzii districts of Homs.
"The needs are so far mainly in the forms of food and also blankets because of the cold," ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan said in Geneva.
Homs has emerged as a central battleground in the conflict, which started last March with protests calling for the ouster of authoritarian President Bashar Assad in some of the country's impoverished hinterlands.
The protests spread as the government waged a bloody crackdown on dissent, and many in the opposition have taken up arms to defend themselves and attack government troops. The U.N. says more than 7,500 people have been killed in the uprising.
Syrian activists said more than a dozen artillery shells struck the town of Rastan, near Homs, killing at least three people and wounding others.
Syrian activists also reported clashes between rebel fighters and government troops in the northern Idlib province. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said one soldier was killed and that the army was raiding homes in nearby villages following the rebel capture of an intelligence officer.
Also Sunday, Syrian ally China offered a proposal to end the violence, calling for an immediate cease-fire and talks by all parties. But it stood firm in its opposition to foreign intervention.
The proposal, posted on the Foreign Ministry's website, describes the situation in Syria as "grave" and calls for an immediate end to all violence as well as humanitarian relief and negotiations mediated by the U.N. and the Arab League.
But it rejects outside interference, sanctions and attempts at regime change.
"We oppose anyone interfering in Syria's internal affairs under the pretext of 'humanitarian' issues," the proposal said. "China does not approve of armed interference or pushing for 'regime change' in Syria and believes that use or threat of sanctions does not help to resolve the issue."
As international pressure against Assad's regime has grown, China and Russia have protected it from censure in the U.N. Security Council.
Beijing is usually reluctant to authorize sanctions or intervention against another country, fearing the precedent may one day be used against China's own authoritarian government.
Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed reporting.