BEIRUT (AP) — 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.
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.
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. Activists said 17 people were killed in Homs on Thursday.
"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."
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been discussing military aid, but the U.S. and others have not advocated arming the rebels, in part out of fear it would create an even more bloody and prolonged conflict. Syria has a complex web of allegiances in the region that extend to Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, raising fears of wider violence.
"It's not clear to us that arming people right now will either save lives or lead to the demise of the Assad regime," the top U.S. diplomat for the Mideast, Jeffrey Feltman, told a Senate committee Thursday.
Both sides in Syria have accused the other of leading the country toward civil war, which is perhaps the worst-case scenario in a country with a fragile mix of ethnic groups including Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and the minority Alawite sect, to which Assad and the ruling elite belong.
Ghalioun said the military council will be made up of military and civilian experts in charge of following up with the various armed factions in Syria and organizing its ranks and unify it under one central leadership.
The SNC has called for arming rebels in the past, but this was the first time it sought to organize the fighters under one umbrella. It's not clear how successful the SNC will be in unifying the various anti-Assad forces. The opposition's main problem in the past year has been its inability to coalesce behind a single leader or ideology beyond toppling the regime.
As the West and Arab states consider offering direct support to Assad's opponents, there are serious questions about whether any opposition group is even remotely prepared to take the helm after more than 40 years under Assad family rule.
Besides the rebel fighters, the chorus of voices speaking against the regime include distinguished exiles who hold little sway back home, aging dissidents who spent years locked in Syrian prisons and tech-savvy young people desperate to cast off a suffocating dictatorship.
Also within opposition ranks are various ideologies and motivations, from secular forces to religious conservatives to outright radicals. Separately, there are worries that al-Qaida will take advantage of the chaos to increase its clout and carry out attacks on Assad's regime.
International pressure on the regime has been growing more intense daily. The U.N.'s top human rights body voted to condemn Syria for its "widespread and systematic violations" against civilians, and the U.K. and Switzerland closed their embassies in Damascus over worsening security. The U.S. closed its embassy in February.
Also Thursday, the U.N. Security Council called on Syrian authorities to grant U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos "unhindered access."
The press statement, obtained Thursday by the AP, was the first one on Syria approved by the council in seven months. It is significant because it requires agreement of all 15 council members including Russia and China who have vetoed two resolutions condemning Assad's crackdown and calling for him 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 violence. Council diplomats said Russia, Syria's closest ally, had urged Assad's government to approve the Amos visit.
On Wednesday, Amos said Syria had not yet agreed to allow her to into the country. But Syria's state-run news agency, SANA, denied that, saying Thursday she wanted to visit "on a date not suitable for us."
"The Syrian side is ready to continue consultation with Amos on a date that is appropriate for both sides ... for Amos to start her visit to Damascus," the SANA statement said.
U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said Amos has been "extremely flexible ... and she's still ready to go at a moment's notice."
The U.N. estimated that more than 7,500 people have been killed since the anti-Assad struggle started in March 2011, when protesters inspired by successful Arab Spring uprisings against dictators in Tunisia and Egypt took to the streets in Syria. As Assad's forces used deadly force to stop the unrest, protests spread and some Syrians took up arms against the regime.
Activists put the total death toll at more than 8,000, most of them civilians.
Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this story.