U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said the Syrian protest city of Homs had been “pretty devastated” and heard gunfire there during a visit on Wednesday, her spokeswoman told AFP.
Amos was stopped from going into areas still held by the opposition after Syria’s foreign minister had told her she could go to any part of the country, U.N. humanitarian affairs spokeswoman Amanda Pitt said.
Amos and a Syrian Red Crescent team were allowed into Homs − including the battered Baba Amro district − on Wednesday following intense international pressure for a visit to assess the extent of the crisis in the city which has become a symbol of protests against President Bashar al-Assad.
“She went in with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to Baba Amro,” ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan told Reuters in Geneva.
Earlier, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem told the visiting U.N. chief that his government is ready to cooperate with her team which is seeking access to protest cities under attack from regime forces.
Muallem “underlined Syria’s commitment to cooperate with the delegation within the framework of the respect, sovereignty and independence of Syria and in coordination with the foreign ministry,” in his meeting with Valerie Amos, state SANA news agency reported.
Amos is on a three-day mission to try to persuade Syrian authorities to grant unhindered access for aid workers to deliver life-saving assistance to civilians.
But Muallem said that Syria was doing its best to provide food and medical assistance to its citizens despite “the burden it faces as a result of unfair sanctions imposed by some Western and Arab nations which are affecting the population.”
Also due to visit Syria this week is joint U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan to see firsthand the effects of a conflict that the United Nations says has killed more than 7,500 civilians.
Valerie Amos had wanted to visit Syria last week, but was denied access. The Syrian military drove armed rebels from the battered Baba Amro district on Thursday after a month-long siege and state media say civilians have begun returning there.
According to SANA reports, Amos told Muallem the aim of her visit was to assess the humanitarian situation and to determine what can be done to provide the population with basic assistance.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has been trying to deliver relief supplies and evacuate the wounded, but has failed to get permission from the authorities so far, raising fears about the fate of survivors in Baba Amro.
Amos’s two-day visit comes after an international outcry over the previous refusal of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to let her in despite mounting concern about the plight of trapped civilians.
Local Coordinating Committees reported on Wednesday that 54 people were killed by security force gunfire across Syria, with most of the deaths in the city of Homs.
Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Geneva, said Amos left for Homs after meeting Foreign Ministry officials in Damascus.
Syrian tanks bombarded other opposition areas in Homs overnight, anti-Assad activists said, although an ICRC spokesman in Damascus said the city was quieter than before.
No independent witnesses have been allowed into the devastated Baba Amro district since rebels withdrew.
In the latest of several accounts of killings and other abuses, local activist Mohammed al-Homsi said troops and pro-Assad militiamen had stabbed to death seven males, including a 10-year-old, from one family on Tuesday. “Their bodies were dumped in farmland next to Baba Amr,” he told Reuters.
Syria imposes severe media restrictions, making such reports hard to verify, although U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has voiced alarm at reports that Syrian government forces have executed, imprisoned and tortured people in Baba Amro.
Red Crescent team enters Baba Amro
The Syrian Red Crescent team entered the battered Baba Amro rebel district of Homs in central Syria on Wednesday, a spokeswoman from the International Committee of the Red Cross said.
The team “entered Baba Amro this afternoon,” Carla Haddad told AFP, adding that they stayed 45 minutes.
Members of the team reported that “most of Baba Amro’s residents have left the area, towards regions where” they could obtain aid from the ICRC, she added.
A seven-truck aid convoy has been waiting since Friday to enter Baba Amro which fleeing residents have said is facing an acute humanitarian crisis in the face of a bloody crackdown on dissent by forces of the Syrian regime.
The authorities had said the relief agencies were being barred for their own safety due to the presence of bombs and landmines.
But Syrian anti-regime activists say the authorities are keeping the groups out to buy time to hide their “crimes.”
Meanwhile, Haddad said a joint ICRC-Red Crescent team managed Wednesday to distribute food and other relief items such as bedding and medical aid, to families who have fled Baba Amro.
Over the past two days, aid has been provided to about 350 families, she said.