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Red Cross aid reaches fleeing Syrians

Red Cross teams handed out food, blankets and medical kits to desperate Syrians in central Homs province.

The humanitarian group was trying to help families who fled Baba Amr after a month-long siege and took shelter in nearby villages, ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan said in Geneva.

"The needs are so far mainly in the forms of food and also blankets because of the cold," Mr Hassan said.

Government forces have blocked humanitarian access to Baba Amr since Friday, the day after troops seized it from rebels. Opposition fighters had been in control of the neighbourhood for several months, and a regime offensive on Homs that began in early February aimed to retake rebel-held neighbourhoods inside the city.

Syrian troops managed to retake Baba Amr after nearly a month of intense and relentless shelling, and activists say hundreds were killed in the daily bombardments that led up to the final battle on Thursday. Some Baba Amr residents died when, in desperation, they dared to venture out of their homes to forage for food.

Activists have said residents face a humanitarian catastrophe in Baba Amr and other parts of Homs, Syria's third-largest city with a population of one million. Electricity, water and communications have been cut off and recent days have seen freezing temperatures and snowfall. Food was running low and many are too scared to venture out.

The government had said it would allow the Red Cross into Baba Amr on Friday but then blocked their access for days, citing security concerns. But in the meantime, activists accused Syrian forces of killing tens of residents execution-style and burning homes in revenge attacks against those believed to be supporting the rebels.

As the brutal siege of Homs dragged on, Western pressure on President Bashar Assad intensified. The US has called for Assad to step down and US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said he could be considered a war criminal.

The European Union committed itself to document war crimes in Syria to set the stage for a "day of reckoning" for the country's leadership, in the way that former Yugoslav leaders were tried for war crimes in the 1990s by a special UN tribunal.

While they continue to appeal for unfettered access to Homs, Red Cross workers were focusing on distributing aid in the village of Abel, about two miles from Homs. They hope to distribute aid in the neighbourhoods of Inshaat and Tawzii today.

"The needs are so far mainly in the forms of food and also blankets because of the cold," Mr Hassan said.

Homs has emerged as a central battleground in the conflict, which started last March with protests calling for the Assad's removal.

The protests spread as the government waged a bloody crackdown on dissent, and many in the opposition have taken up arms to defend themselves and attack government troops. The UN says more than 7,500 people have been killed in the uprising.

The bodies of two Western journalists who were killed two weeks ago in a government rocket attack in Homs have arrived in France. The body of French photographer Remi Ochlik would remain there, while that of American reporter Marie Colvin would be sent to the US, the French Foreign Ministry said.

Yesterday Syrian ally China offered a proposal to end the violence, calling for an immediate ceasefire and talks by all parties. But it stood firm in its opposition to foreign intervention.

The proposal, posted on the Foreign Ministry's website, describes the situation in Syria as "grave" and calls for an immediate end to all violence as well as humanitarian relief and negotiations mediated by the UN and the Arab League.

But it rejects outside interference, sanctions and attempts at regime change.

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