Syrian troops clashed with rebels in the third-largest city Homs Friday, scarpering a new bid to rescue trapped civilians as the United Nations said up to 1.5 million people were now in need of aid.
The fresh bombardment of the central, Orontes valley city came after at least 168 died on Thursday, the highest single-day death toll since a U.N.-backed ceasefire was supposed to take effect on April 12, a human rights watchdog said. Activists in Homs reached by AFP via Skype spoke of a “catastrophic situation” in the historic center and adjacent neighborhoods.
“They have been shelling for months and today they continued,” activist Abu Bilal said.
He added that most Homs residents have fled and those who remain are trying to escape. “Seventy percent of the city’s infrastructure has been destroyed,” he said.
Hundreds of people are believed to be trapped in the historic heart of Homs, unable to flee or find shelter, the ICRC said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, which made two attempts to enter Homs on Thursday alongside the Syrian Red Crescent, said any new relief effort would depend on an improvement in security.
“We cannot know when our team will return to Homs, after they returned to Damascus yesterday following two failed attempts to evacuate civilians from the city,” ICRC spokesperson Rabab al-Rifai told AFP.
“We will discuss the next steps internally, and in partnership with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, before we take any decision regarding our return there.”
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said up to 1.5 million Syrians now need humanitarian aid, up from the one million estimated at the end of March.
“The humanitarian situation in Syria continues to deteriorate,” said the latest OCHA bulletin.
“It is now estimated that up to 1.5 million people need humanitarian assistance.”
In Homs province, 250,000 people need aid, OCHA said.
In Idlib province in the northwest, a hive of rebel activity near the Turkish border, the Red Crescent reports that 350,000 people are needy.
The U.N. has agreed with the Syrian authorities to establish four humanitarian hubs to allow the delivery of essential aid.
A reconnaissance mission to Idlib, Daraa, Homs and Deir Ezzor has now been completed, OCHA said, and hubs may initially be established in the latter two.
But the deployment of staff to field locations is on hold “given the security situation.”
The number of refugees fleeing the conflict to Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey has meanwhile reached more than 86,000.
Activists said a woman was killed and several civilians wounded in a pre-dawn barrage targeting the town of Al-Karak Al-Sharqi in Daraa province, cradle of uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.
Several towns in Idlib province were also bombarded as troops tried to retake rebel bastions, the Observatory said.
And in Aleppo, the country’s second-largest city, two members of the security forces were killed and four wounded in a rebel attack, the watchdog said.
‘Turkey does not ship weapons’
Despite the relentless shelling of rebel hubs, the opposition issued new calls for mass anti-regime protests later on Friday after weekly prayers.
“If the rulers are indifferent, where are the people?” is the slogan for Friday’s protests, activists said.
Neighboring Turkey, meanwhile, denied reports it was shipping weapons to the rebels.
“Turkey does not ship weapons to any neighboring country, including Syria,” foreign ministry spokesperson Selcuk Unal said.
The New York Times newspaper reported on Thursday that U.S. intelligence operatives in Turkey were vetting the flow of weapons to Syrian rebels to ensure they do not fall into the hands of al-Qaeda militants.
It cited unnamed U.S. officials and Arab intelligence officials as saying the weapons were being paid for by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar and taken across the Turkish border by a shadowy opposition network.
The weapons mentioned in the report include automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some anti-tank weapons, which have allowed the rebels to fight Assad’s far superior forces.
Turkey, an old ally of the Damascus regime, broke with Assad last year as popular demonstrations in Syria were stomped on by bloody clashes that have taken more than 15,000 lives in more than 15 months.
Turkey is currently home to 32,750 Syrian refugees, said Unal. It also shelters 12 Syrian generals who defected from the Syrian army to join the rebel ranks, he added.