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February 26, 2012

Red Crescent Evacuates Three Wounded Syrians from Homs

The International Committee of the Red Cross says Syrian aid workers have evacuated several people from a Homs neighborhood besieged by government forces, but have failed to rescue a group of Western journalists trapped in the area.

An ICRC spokesman in Geneva says Syrian Arab Red Crescent ambulances entered the rebel-held district of Baba Amr on Monday, evacuating three wounded Syrians. He says the aid workers were not able to evacuate the Western journalists, two of whom are wounded, or to retrieve the bodies of two others killed in a shelling attack last week.

The ICRC has been negotiating with the Syrian government and the rebels for days to try to secure access to Baba Amr, where local activists say many people are short of water, food and medical supplies after more than three weeks of daily government bombardments.

Syrian rights activists said more than 60 people were killed trying to flee the attacks on the central city of Homs, a hub of Syria's 11-month uprising against autocratic President Bashar al-Assad. It was not clear where or when the people were killed. Syrian state news agency SANA also said 16 security personnel were buried after being killed in fighting with rebels.

The United Nations' top human rights body is due to hold an urgent meeting on the Syrian crisis in Geneva Tuesday. The Associated Press says it obtained a draft Council resolution that would call on the Syrian government to end attacks on civilians and would condemn Damascus for "widespread and systematic violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms."

Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said Monday the rebel Free Syrian Army should be given weapons to defend the Syrian people. Qatar has been one of President Assad's strongest Arab critics.

In other developments Monday, Syria drew a mixed international response to its holding of a referendum a day earlier on approving a new constitution. Damascus said 90 percent of voters approved the new constitution, which allows the creation of a multi-party system and sets presidential term limits in a country ruled solely by the Baath Party since 1963. But the reforms also would enable President Assad to keep much of his power.

China and Russia welcomed the Syrian referendum. The two powers have repeatedly blocked the U.N. Security Council from condemning or punishing Damascus for its deadly crackdown on the opposition revolt.

But U.N. spokesman Eduardo del Buey said the referendum is "unlikely to be credible" in the context of what he called "pervasive violence and massive human rights violations." He said the end of the Baath Party's monopoly on power "could be part of a political solution" to Syria's unrest, but any vote would have to take place in conditions "free of violence and intimidation."

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland dismissed the referendum as "absolutely cynical." She also called the reforms "ridiculous," saying they require any new opposition party to receive government approval, enabling Mr. Assad to "hand pick who gets to be in the opposition and who does not."

Syrian opposition groups say the only acceptable solution to Syria's crisis is for President Assad to step down.

European Union foreign ministers also tightened sanctions on Syria's central bank and froze the assets of several Syrian officials on Monday. The bloc already had blacklisted about 150 other Syrian entities and people.

U.N.-appointed investigators estimate the death toll from the uprising at 6,400 civilians and 1,680 army defectors. Syrian officials have insisted the government is fighting only foreign-backed armed "terrorists."

Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.