Red Cross eyes evacuation of Syrian civilians

The Red Cross said Wednesday it will try to evacuate hundreds of civilians trapped by fierce fighting in and around the restive city of Homs, as violence killed dozens of people across Syria.

The head of the UN Supervision Mission in Syria, meanwhile, told the UN Security Council of the intensifying violence in the country but said the nearly 300 unarmed monitors were "morally obliged" to stay.

"We are going nowhere," Major General Robert Mood said after the closed meeting.

On the political front, Russia resisted Western pleas to help remove Syria's President Bashar Assad from power despite the escalating hostilities that have battered a UN-backed peace initiative.

"We believe that nobody has the right to decide for other nations who should be in power and who should not," Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday after a G20 summit in Mexico.

The US State Department said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would meet her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Saint Petersburg next week, as the two sides struggle to find a common stance to end the conflict.

Violence on Wednesday killed at least 61 people, more than a third of them government troops, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, as an activists spoke of a "desperate" situation in and around Homs.

"Every day there are many wounded from the shelling, and we can't do anything for them because we have nothing to treat them with," activist Abu Bilal told AFP in Beirut via Skype.

"The shelling is practically constant, and we can't get anybody out of the besieged districts," he added.

Last week the Observatory said more than 1,000 families were stuck in the region around Homs and spoke of dozens of people wounded in urgent need of medical care.

"Electricity has been cut off for four days" in the Old City of Homs and "there's no more flour to bake bread. There really is nothing to eat," said Abu Bilal.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was hoping to evacuate civilians stranded in Homs city and bring in relief aid and medical supplies with the help of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

The ICRC said it had made a request for a temporary halt in fighting on Tuesday to the government and opposition groups. Both parties said they would respect the pause.

"Our first priority, together with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, is to evacuate the wounded and the sick to safer areas, where they can be treated," said the ICRC's Beatrice Megevand-Roggo.

The Red Cross and the Red Crescent are ready to enter several Homs city neighbourhoods, including the battered districts of Khaldiyeh and Jourat al-Shiah, which activists say have been pounded mercilessly for days.

Homs has been under intermittent attack by regime forces ever since its Baba Amr neighbourhood was relentlessly pounded for a month earlier this year and the regime retook it from rebels.

The Observatory said the army was trying to overrun rebel hideouts in Khaldiyeh and other districts but was meeting tough resistance from the armed insurgents.

On Wednesday, it reported that the army suffered heavy losses in two northwestern provinces in fierce clashes with fighters from the rebel Free Syrian Army.

At least 20 troops died in clashes in the northwestern province of Latakia, while another five were killed in fighting that erupted late Tuesday in the Kurdish Mountain region and continued into the next day, the watchdog said.

Some of the troops were killed when rebels attacked two buildings which soldiers used to launch mortars against the insurgents holed up in the Kurdish Mountain, the Observatory's Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP..

Wednesday's death toll included 27 civilians killed in shelling and gunfire in various parts of the country, including a child killed in the Homs province town of Rastan, the Observatory said.

Rastan has been under regime shelling for three months, according to an activist from the town.

"About 80 percent of the population has fled," the activist who identified himself as Ammar told AFP. "There is no electricity, no bread" and those who remain "survive on small amounts of food smuggled from nearby villages."

Gunmen also assassinated a Shiite cleric in the south Damascus district of Sayyida Zeinab, home to a revered shrine that attracts pilgrims from Iraq, Iran and Lebanon.

Meanwhile EU diplomats said the bloc will slap fresh sanctions on Assad's regime next week and clarify the rules on insuring items embargoed for delivery to Syria.

EU foreign ministers will state "in black and white" that insuring arms deliveries to Syria is banned under an arms embargo decided last year, one source said.

More than 14,400 people have been killed in Syria since an uprising erupted in mid-March last year against Assad and his Baath Party which has ruled for nearly five decades.

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