U.N. fears for Homs civilians under siege as violence escalates

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Long-range weapons and tank attacks are being used in the worsening siege of the Syrian city of Homs, the United Nations said Friday.

U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos and human rights chief Navi Pillay renewed appeals for access to the city but said President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and opposition rebels were refusing to give firm safety guarantees.

The U.N. and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said they were ready to rush in aid if they could secure a halt to the fighting.

Rebel-held areas of Homs have been under assault from Assad’s forces since June 28, and the two U.N. officials said in a joint statement they are “extremely alarmed by the escalating violence” in Homs and Aleppo.

“We understand that up to 2,500 people remain trapped inside Homs, where there are reports of continuing shelling, use of long-range weapons and ground attacks using tanks,” the two officials said.

“The presence of armed opposition groups inside residential areas also increases the risk for civilians,” they added in an appeal to the warring sides to “grant immediate safe passage to allow civilians to leave Homs and to allow humanitarian aid to get in.”

Amos said talks with the government and rebels were continuing, “but neither the government nor armed groups have provided sufficient safety or security guarantees for civilians or aid workers.”

Homs has been a continual focus of the Syrian civil war which the U.N. says has left up to 100,000 dead since an uprising against Assad started in March 2011.

“The lives of thousands of people in the old city of Homs are at serious risk as a result of the intense fighting in progress there for over ten days now,” the ICRC said in a statement.

“We want to bring in humanitarian assistance and enable the evacuation of civilians, but an operation of this kind requires the consent of all sides. And that does not yet exist,” said Magne Barthe, head of the ICRC’s Syria delegation. The Geneva-based organization said it had received reports from inside Homs Old City “of extremely difficult conditions exacerbated by the scarcity of food and medical supplies.”

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