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Death toll mounts as demos come under fire; Red Cross not allowed to enter Baba Amro

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Syrian security forces opened fire to disperse demonstrations in the cities of Aleppo and Damascus on Friday as thousands took to the streets across Syria, activists and monitors said.

As many as 56 people have been killed by the fire of Syrian security forces on Friday, mostly in Homs, Al Arabiya reported citing activists at the Local Coordination Committees. A shell hit a protest in Rastan killing 16 people, activists said.

“God curse you Hafez for having a son like that,” shouted protesters in reference to Assad’s late father who ruled Syria for three decades until he died in 2000. “The people want to announce Jihad (Holy War),” read a banner.

The northern city of Aleppo was the scene of 12 protests, with demonstrators chanting support for Homs and other areas besieged by regime forces, according to local activist Mohammed al-Halabi.

“Hundreds were taking part several demonstrations in the Halab al-Jadida district, while thousands demonstrated in other areas such as Salah Eddin, Fardoss and Marjeh,” he told AFP.

He said security forces fired live rounds at protesters in Salah Eddin and Saif a-Dawla neighborhoods, where several people were wounded and others arrested.

Five demonstrators were shot and wounded as security forces fired to disperse a protest outside Salam mosque in the Barzeh area of Damascus, after weekly Muslim prayers, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Activist Mohammed al-Shami told AFP that thousands of demonstrators turned out in several areas of the capital and its suburbs, such as Mazzeh, Hajar al-Aswad, al-Aasali, Douma, Qadam, Qaboon and Kfar Sousa.

“We shall not abandon Homs. We shall not abandon Deraa,” protesters chanted in a video posted online, hailing the main centers of dissent against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that it was unable to enter the Homs district of Baba Amro on Friday, where it had hoped to bring in aid and evacuate the sick and wounded.

“The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society (SARC) were not allowed to enter the Baba Amr district of Homs today,” ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger said in a statement issued in Geneva.

“It is unacceptable that people who have been in need of emergency assistance for weeks have still not received any help. We are staying in Homs tonight in the hope of entering Baba Amro in the very near future. In addition, many families have fled Baba Amro, and we will help them as soon as we possibly can.”

Syrian authorities had given the independent agency a “green light” on Thursday to enter in Friday, the statement said without providing further details on what had prevented their humanitarian operation to start.

Syrian authorities, meanwhile, handed over the bodies of two journalists killed on Feb. 22, American Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik, to the ICRC, which is taking them by ambulance from Homs to Damascus, the ICRC said.

“We have the bodies of 2 journalists, Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik. They are being taken by ambulance of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, accompanied by the ICRC, and are heading to Damascus,” chief ICRC spokeswoman Carla Haddad told Reuters in Geneva.

“They were handed over in Homs by the Syrian authorities.”

Baba Amro became a symbol of resistance to Assad after government troops surrounded it with tanks and artillery and shelled it intensively for weeks, killing and wounding civilians cowering in its ruined buildings.

Activists said the Syrian army had begun hunting down and killing insurgents who had stayed to cover their comrades’ retreat, although the reports could not be verified, according to Reuters.

In Geneva, the United Nations human rights body reminded Assad of his obligations under international law. “We are alarmed at reports starting to come out of the Baba Amro district of Homs after it was taken over by government forces yesterday,” spokesman Rupert Colville said.

The rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) said on Thursday it was leaving the district -- normally home to 100,000 residents. Only a few thousand people remain.

Conditions in the heavily bombarded district are hellish. TV footage showed heavy snow and freezing weather, with residents lacking electricity or fuel for heating. There is also a shortage of food and medical supplies.

Barely a building has escaped damage from artillery shelling and many are pock-marked with bullet holes.

Armed rebels and defecting soldiers have been spearheading the revolt against Assad that began with largely peaceful protests inspired by the Arab Spring, but escalated after a government crackdown.

As the drama unfolded in Homs, a Lebanese official close to Damascus said a defeat for the rebels in Homs would leave the opposition without any major stronghold in Syria, easing the crisis for Assad, who remained confident he could survive.

President Assad, a London-trained eye doctor, is increasingly isolated internationally in his struggle to crush the armed insurrection.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul told Reuters on Thursday that
Russia and Iran would soon realize they had little choice but to join international diplomatic efforts for Assad's removal.

The United Nations says Syrian security forces have killed more than 7,500 civilians since the revolt began last March. Syria’s government said in December that “armed terrorists” had killed more than 2,000 soldiers and police during the unrest.