CAIRO - Attempts by the Red Cross
to evacuate civilians from the battered northern Syrian city of Homs appear to be stalled Thursday, as government forces continue their military offensive against the city and its surroundings. New reports also claim that government troops shelled a group of mourners in the southern flashpoint city of Dara'a, killing a large number of people.
Rabab al-Rifai, a spokeswoman for the ICRC, said the team remains in another part of Homs and will continue to attempt to enter the badly hit neighborhood of Hamidiya.
"An ICRC team and Syrian Arab Red Crescent was heading today to Hamidiya area, but it had to turn back to Homs city," said al-Rifai. "The team had to return as it heard close shootings. So, now, they are trying to re-establish contact with all concerned - the authorities and the opposition - and we will attempt to go back again to the area [later today]."
Rifai said both the ICRC and the Syrian Red Crescent are hoping to evacuate both the sick and wounded, as well as ordinary citizens trapped inside the city by fighting.
“Fighting has been raging for more than 10 days between the Syrian Army and armed opposition groups in several neighborhoods of Homs, so, there are hundreds of civilians to our knowledge that are stuck in the old city of Homs," she said. "They are unable to leave and find refuge in safer areas because of the ongoing armed confrontations.”
Rifai says that the ICRC has helped 400,000 Syrians affected by unrest or fighting, since the start of the year. ICRC and the Syrian Red Crescent have teams in most major Syrian cities.
This image made from amateur video released by Shaam News Network purports to show smoke rising from buildings in Homs, Syria, June 18, 2012.
Fire burns after shelling at the Al Qussoor area in Homs, Syria, June 18, 2012.
This image made from amateur video purports to show smoke rising from buildings in Homs, Syria. Syrian forces renewed shelling of the central city of Homs on Monday, one day after the head of the U.N. observers' mission demanded that warring parties allow
Residents flee their homes after shelling in Houla near Homs, Syria, June 18, 2012.
Residents gather during the funeral of Hussein Omish, whom protesters say was killed by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in Jubar outside Damascus, Syria, June 18, 2012.
Demonstrators hold opposition flags during a protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Kfr Suseh, Damascus, Syria. June 18, 2012
Analyst Timor Goksel, who teaches at the American University of Beirut, says the Syrian government "needs to take certain steps to ease the pressure and to soften its image," but that he does not consider the evacuation of civilians to be a "major concession."
New reports say that a Syrian fighter pilot defected to Jordan Thursday, flying his MiG-21 warplane to al-Mafraq airport. A majority of Syrian air force pilots are Sunni Muslims, while a majority of helicopter pilots are Alawites.
The Syrian defense minister called the pilot who defected a "deserter and a traitor." He also called on Jordan to return the MiG-21 plane used by the pilot to flee the country.
Amateur video showed Syrian helicopters shooting missiles at the southern city of Dara'a Thursday. Numerous videos have shown Syrian helicopters crossing different parts of the country in recent days.
Russia also confirmed Thursday that a Russian ship, the MV Alaed, which was turned back while off the Scottish coast due to the cancellation of its insurance coverage, was carrying helicopters belonging to the Syrian government. It said another vessel would attempt to deliver the cargo.
Witnesses also reported fierce fighting in the mostly opposition-held Damascus suburb of Douma. Amateur video showed rebel soldiers engaged in street battles with government troops.
Witnesses report that up to 20 people were killed when government troops shelled a funeral procession in the Dara'a suburb of Inghil. Relatives cried and shouted as they gathered around the bodies laid out on the carpet of a local mosque.
In Cairo, Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi said that a contact group would meet to discuss Syria on June 29.
"A committee including the five major powers would meet for the first time, which is important since previous meetings did not include two of those powers [Russian and China]," said al-Arabi.
Both Russia and China have repeatedly blocked U.N. Security Council resolutions to condemn the Syrian government for attacking civilian populations. The U.N. estimates that over 10,000 civilians have been killed in more than 15 months of conflict.