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Fresh assault on Homs as Red Cross seeks access to bloodied Baba Amr district
BEIRUT (AP) ' Syrian forces launched a fresh assault on Homs on Saturday as the Red Cross pressed forward with efforts to deliver badly needed aid to thousands of people stranded in a besieged neighborhood despite warnings from regime troops of land mines and booby traps.
Two days after they fought their way into the rebel stronghold of Baba Amr, government forces shelled several other neighborhoods of the city, the country's third largest with about 1 million people. They included districts where many of Baba Amr's residents had fled, activists said.
The Syrian regime has said it was fighting "armed gangs" in Baba Amr, which has become a symbol of the nearly year-old uprising against President Bashar Assad's authoritarian rule. The revolt has killed more than 7,500 people, according to the U.N.
The Local Coordination Committees activist network said mortars slammed into the districts of Khaldiyeh, Bab Sbaa and Khader.
Abu Hassan al-Homsi, a doctor at a makeshift clinic in Khaldiyeh, said he treated a dozen people who were wounded, most lightly.
"This has become routine, the mortars start falling early in the morning," he said. Several homes were damaged from the morning shelling.
Another Khaldiyeh resident who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals said the district has been without water and heating fuel for a week amid freezing temperatures and snow.
"We are collecting rain and snow water, and cutting trees to burn to warm ourselves," he said.
Conditions in Baba Amr are believed to be dire, with extended power outages, shortages of food and water, and lack of medical care. Syrian government forces took control of the neighborhood Thursday after rebels fled the district under constant bombardment that activists said killed hundreds of people since early February.
The Red Cross said the regime blocked its entry to Baba Amr on Friday, one day after the group received government permission to enter with a convoy of seven trucks carrying 15 tons of humanitarian aid including food, medical supplies and blankets.
"We are still in negotiations to enter Baba Amr," ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan said Saturday in Geneva.
The Syrians said they were not letting the Red Cross into Baba Amr because of safety concerns, including land mines, Hassan said, adding the organization had not been able to verify the danger. The government has not offered an official explanation.
"It's important that we get in today," Hassan said. "We are not about to give up."
There was no immediate word on what was going on in Baba Amr on Saturday, a day after activists accused regime forces of execution-style killings and a scorched-earth campaign of burning homes, raising fears of revenge attacks in a country on the verge of civil war.
Telephone and Internet lines were still down and activists in nearby areas said they had no information from inside.
In the northern Idlib province, cemetery workers were burying people in parks because the graveyards were targets for regime forces, residents said.
"They (the Syrian army) don't let us pass the check point to get to the cemetery over there, they don't let us dig graves over there. So we have to dig graves in the park," Idlib cemetery worker Issam Abbas told The Associated Press.
On Saturday, children were still playing in the park as fresh graves were dug for three Free Syrian Army fighters reportedly killed on Friday night trying to plant anti-tank mines to destroy government vehicles.
Standing knee-deep in one of the graves, worker Abdel Mohcen said working in the city cemetery had become too dangerous.
"Last time I was there I had four bullets fired at me," he said.
In Damascus, Red Crescent officials handed over to embassy officials the bodies of two foreign journalists who were killed in shelling while trapped inside Baba Amr.
French Ambassador Eric Chevallier received the body of French photographer Remi Ochlik, and a Polish diplomat received the remains of American Marie Colvin. U.S. interests in Syria are represented by Poland.
Both journalists had sneaked into Syria illegally to try to get an eyewitness view of the government crackdown in the country. They died on Feb. 22 in shelling that also wounded Edith Bouvier of the daily Le Figaro and British photographer Paul Conroy.
Turkey's foreign minister said a lack of international consensus over Syria is emboldening the government there to proceed with its crackdown.
Ahmet Davutoglu said the scale of the killing matches the bloodshed in the Balkans wars of the 1990s, and described the Syrian regime's actions as a "crime against humanity."
Davutoglu spoke Saturday at a joint news conference with his Italian counterpart, Giulio Terzi.
Both ministers criticized Syria for blocking the Red Cross convoy.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Syria to give humanitarian workers immediate access to people who desperately need aid.
"The images which we have seen in Syria are atrocious," said Ban. "It's totally unacceptable, intolerable. How, as a human being, can you bear this situation?"
In other violence Saturday, a suicide car bomb exploded in Daraa, killing at least two people and wounding 20, activists said. The state-run news agency said the blast occurred at a roundabout in an area known as Daraa al-Balad and said there were casualties including civilians and security forces.
It blamed "terrorists" for the attack. But residents taking part in the funeral of the two on Saturday blamed the regime. "They were killed by an explosion prepared by the Assad gang," a banner read.
During the funeral procession, which was shown live online, a crowd of people cried: "Death rather than humiliation," and "We will take our revenge from Maher and Bashar," a reference to Bashar Assad's younger brother Maher, who is believed to be leading the crackdown against the opposition.
Daraa is the birthplace of the uprising against Assad, which started after government forces arrested Daraa students because they scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a wall.
Syria has seen a string of suicide bombings, the last on Feb. 10, when twin blasts struck security compounds in the government stronghold city of Aleppo, killing 28 people and bringing significant violence for the first time to the city.
The capital Damascus, another Assad stronghold, has seen three suicide bombings in the past two months.
The regime has touted the attacks as proof that it is being targeted by "terrorists." The opposition accuses forces loyal to the government of being behind the bombings to tarnish the uprising.
Saturday's bombing in Daraa marked the first time a suicide bombing struck an opposition stronghold.
Associated Press writers Frank Jordans in Geneva and Elizabeth A. Kennedy in Beirut contributed to this report.