BEIRUT (Washington Post) — The Free Syrian Army announced Thursday that it was retreating from the shattered Bab Amr neighborhood in the Syrian city of Homs, citing concerns for the welfare of civilians and the inability to withstand an escalating offensive by better-armed government troops.
The rebels’ decision came a day after Syria’s army launched a fresh push to retake Bab Amr, which had become a powerful symbol of resistance to the regime led by President Bashar al-Assad. The district has been under siege by government troops, bombarded on a daily basis for nearly four weeks.
Unconfirmed reports that government forces had entered the neighborhood and were combing the streets hunting for activists immediately raised fears for the safety of the estimated 4,000 civilians who remain in Bab Amr. A Homs activist who asked to be identified only as Sami said massive explosions were shaking the city as the army closed in on the neighborhood and bombarded areas around it, an apparent effort to block the retreating rebels.
Activist groups published the names of 17 civilians who they said had been hacked to death by government forces on the outskirts of Bab Amr. Some reports said the victims had been beheaded.
“Bab Amr is now most probably under army control,” said Wissam Tarif, an activist with the advocacy group Avaaz, in Beirut, who is in contact with Free Syrian Army soldiers inside Homs. “We are very concerned about the civilians because the history of this regime means they are likely to kill everyone who is there.”
“Another Hama is happening in 2012, and the world is watching,” Tarif added. He was referring to the 1982 crackdown by Assad’s father against a revolt in the nearby city of Hama, in which at least 10,000 people are believed to have died.
“History is repeating itself,” Tarif said. “The son is doing what the father did.”
In a statement posted on a Facebook page run by Bab Amr activists, the rebels cited dire humanitarian conditions in the area and called on the Red Cross to be allowed to deliver aid those trapped in the neighborhood.
“We, the Bab Amr brigade, have decided to strategically withdraw for the sake of the civilians remaining inside the neighborhood,” the statement said. “The humanitarian situation is at its worst, as there is no food whatsoever, no medicines, no water and no electricity. There is no communication in the area thus making matters much worse.”
The statement added: “We are also lacking in enough arms to defend the civilians.”
Rumors that the loosely organized rebel fighters had pulled out began circulating early Thursday, but with all communications to the area cut, including satellite connections, it was difficult to establish precisely what was happening. Activists in Homs said it appeared that the rebels had simply run out of ammunition and began fleeing the neighborhood overnight and into the morning.
The Associated Press quoted Burhan Ghalioun, the head of the Syrian National Council opposition group, as telling reporters in Paris that although some fighters had relocated, resistance in Bab Amr “is still strong.”