British actress Olivia Williams with sabre fish.
BEIRUT (AP) — The U.N. humanitarian chief on Wednesday entered the shattered Syrian district of Baba Amr, where activists accuse regime forces of trying to cover up evidence of execution-style killings and reprisal attacks following a bloody military siege.
Valerie Amos was expected to give the first outside assessment of the conditions in the neighborhood in the central city of Homs.
The government had sealed off Baba Amr since regime forces recaptured the neighborhood from rebels last Thursday following a deadly assault that lasted nearly four weeks. Activists accuse the government of using the past six days to try to cover up evidence of atrocities by the regime.
Khaled Erq Sousi, head of the emergency committee of the Syrian Red Crescent, told The Associated Press that Amos was allowed into Baba Amr. The government had rebuffed an earlier request by Amos to visit the country this month as regime troops attacked Baba Amr, finally wresting it back from rebels who had held it for months.
Amos has said the aim of her visit is “to urge all sides to allow unhindered access for humanitarian relief workers so they can evacuate the wounded and deliver essential supplies.”
Despite international appeals, the Syrian government still has not allowed any aid workers into Baba Amr, saying there was a security risk. But activists say the government has been engaged in a “mopping-up” operation to hide their activities.
After seizing Baba Amr from the rebels, regime forces appeared to be turning their attention to other rebellious areas, including the northern province of Idlib near Turkey. The shift suggested that the Syrian military is unable to launch large operations simultaneously, even though the security services remain largely strong and loyal.
According to witnesses, Syrian troops shelled the northern villages in Idlib on Wednesday.
Syrian President Bashar Assad defies mounting international pressure to end the year-old crackdown on an uprising against him.
According to state news agency SANA, Assad said Tuesday that he will continue to confront “foreign-backed terrorism.” Since the uprising began last March, he has blamed armed gangs and foreign terrorists for the unrest, not protesters seeking change.
The U.N. says more than 7,500 people have been killed since Syria’s uprising began. Activists put the death toll at more than 8,000.
Despite the growing bloodshed, President Barack Obama has said unilateral U.S. military action against Assad’s regime would be a mistake.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta pushed back on Wednesday against fresh demands for U.S. military involvement in Syria to end Assad’s deadly crackdown on his people.
“What doesn’t make sense is to take unilateral action right now,” Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee about advising Obama to dispatch U.S. forces. “I’ve got to make very sure we know what the mission is … achieving that mission at what price.”
The panel’s top Republican, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, said the estimated 7,500 dead and the bloodshed calls for U.S. leadership that a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, displayed during the Bosnian war in the 1990s and that Obama eventually showed on Libya last year.
“In past situations, America has led. We’re not leading, Mr. Secretary,” McCain told Panetta.
The Pentagon chief later added that the United States is not holding back and is leading in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and the war on terrorism.
Testifying before the committee, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey and Panetta offered a cautionary note to the call by McCain to launch U.S. airstrikes against Assad’s regime.
“This terrible situation has no simple answers,” Panetta told the panel.
Russia and China, powerful Syrian allies that have blocked a Security Council resolution against Syria, have made clear they were still standing by the regime in Damascus.
Still, in a sign of China’s growing alarm, Chinese Commerce Minister Chen Deming said Beijing was pulling its workers out of Syria because of the violence.
“I can tell you most Chinese workers have been withdrawn from that country to China,” he told a news conference Wednesday. “There are only about 100 people left there taking care of projects, assets and property. We will wait until the local situation stabilizes. We will go back to Syria and restart those projects.”
Aji reported from Damascus. AP writer Nebi Qena in Yayladagi, Turkey contributed to this report.
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