Syrian forces overrun Baba Amr
Damascus - Syrian forces have overrun the Baba Amr district of the powderkeg city of Homs following a rebel retreat, potentially marking a turning point in President Bashar Assad's bid to crush an increasingly armed uprising.
As rebel fighters pulled back on Thursday, the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) warned of a "massacre" in Baba Amr, while relief agencies said they would urgently try to get there to deliver aid and evacuate the wounded.
The UN Security Council called on Syria to allow "immediate" humanitarian access to protest cities in a statement supported by Russia and China, who had vetoed two resolutions on the conflict that has claimed thousands of lives.
The SNC, citing "confusion" on the ground in Syria, said in Paris that it would provide leadership to an outgunned and fragmented force, and control the flow of arms to fighters.
The rebels said they had pulled out "tactically" from Baba Amr on Thursday, the second day of an all-out ground assault by the feared Fourth Armoured Division led by Assad's younger brother Maher.
The storming of the rebel bastion began early on Wednesday, following 27 straight days of relentless shelling of Homs, a central city that has been a protest hub since anti-regime demonstrations erupted in March last year.
40 000 rebel fighters
Syrian authorities found the bodies of US journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik in Baba Amr after the rebels retreated, the foreign ministry said. The journalists were killed in a rocket attack last month.
Rebels "have pulled out tactically in order to protect the remaining civilians", said Colonel Riyadh al-Asaad, the leader of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is made up mostly of deserters.
The FSA was formed in mid-2011 in response to the brutal crackdown by Assad's forces on anti-regime protesters, and now boasts up to 40 000 armed fighters, although the numbers are impossible to verify.
A Syrian security official said in Damascus that the army was in total command of the Homs neighbourhood.
State television aired what it said was footage filmed inside Baba Amr, including interviews with people it said were residents angry with the rebels.
The SNC urged the international community to act to prevent to protect residents, charging that the Fourth Armoured Division was conducting "barbaric operations against civilians".
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 21 people were killed in Homs on Thursday, including 17 civilians caught up in the battle for control of Baba Amr.
In total, 39 people, including eight loyal soldiers and seven deserters, were killed in violence across Syria on Thursday, the Observatory said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent were preparing to urgently reach the conflict zone, an ICRC spokesperson said.
"The ICRC and the SARC will go on Friday to Baba Amr to deliver humanitarian aid and evacuate the wounded," Damascus spokesperson Saleh Dabbakeh said.
French journalists Edith Bouvier, who sustained serious leg wounds in Syria, and William Daniels, trapped for days in bombarded Homs, escaped Syria for Lebanon, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said late on Thursday.
"I have just spoken with Edith Bouvier, who is naturally exhausted, having suffered hugely, but she knows she is free and that she will soon be taken care of," said Sarkozy.
The French president said the pair could be brought back to France "tonight" in a government-owned aircraft if doctors gave their go-ahead.
Bouvier suffered multiple fractures in the same February 22 rocket attack on a makeshift media centre that killed Colvin and Ochlik.
Two short videos released by activists in Homs claimed to show the burials of the pair.
In the videos, a man claiming to be a doctor and dressed in a surgeon's green gown and a white coat opens body bags and shows the faces of the two slain journalists. Their names are inscribed on the respective body bags.
"We have no means to preserve the bodies due to a lack of electricity for the refrigerators," the man says in Arabic.
"Therefore we have decided to bury them here, in a cemetery in Baba Amr."
Photographer Daniels was also on assignment for Le Figaro, and was trapped alongside Spaniard Javier Espinosa of El Mundo daily.
The Spanish daily said Espinosa had safely escaped to Beirut, despite claims in Syria that his body had been found alongside those of Colvin and Ochlik.
Another journalist wounded in the attack, British photographer Paul Conroy, was evacuated to Lebanon on Tuesday.
On the political front, the SNC said its military bureau, announced on Wednesday, would co-ordinate the flow of weapons to the rebels following mounting calls from Gulf Arab states for arms to be delivered despite US fears that Al-Qaeda may exploit any further militarisation of the crisis.
"The SNC will be this link between those who want to help and the revolutionaries," its leader Burhan Ghalioun told reporters in Paris.
"It is out of the question that arms go into Syria in confusion," he added.
The assault on Baba Amr came as international envoy Kofi Annan said he hopes to travel to Damascus with a clear message that the "violence must stop".
Britain announced that it was following the United States in closing its embassy and pulling out its remaining diplomats in response to the "deterioration of the security situation in Damascus".
UN political chief B Lynn Pascoe told the Security Council on Tuesday that "well over 7 500" people have been killed since the start of the crackdown.
Europe's leaders meanwhile pledged to tighten the noose on Syria with fresh sanctions failing an end to violence and rights abuses by the regime.