The U.N. humanitarian chief, Valerie Amos, toured the former Syrian rebel stronghold of Baba Amr Wednesday but found most residents had fled following a bloody military siege, while activists accused the government of trying to cover up evidence of atrocities there.
A spokeswoman for Amos said she found parts of the district "completely devastated" and that very few people were around - most having fled to nearby areas where aid workers are distributing food and medical supplies.
Amos and a Syrian Arab Red Crescent team spent 45 minutes in Baba Amr, but were stopped from entering areas of the central city of Homs still held by opposition forces despite government assurances that she could travel freely within Syria.
The visit was the first by an independent observer since the Syrian military began its month-long assault on the rebellious neighborhood that was seized from rebel control last week. Activists and witnesses say the assault killed hundreds of people and left residents desperately short of food, water and medical care.
The Syrian government has kept Baba Amr sealed off for the past six days, saying it was too dangerous for humanitarian workers to enter. But activists accused the government of engaging in a "mopping-up" operation to hide their atrocities.
Amos also met Syria's foreign minister Wednesday and is to hold talks with other government officials in Damascus on Thursday.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Syria's blocking of humanitarian supplies for civilians represents a “new low” in President Bashar al-Assad's violent campaign against his political opponents. She said tons of food and medicine have been standing by while civilians die and the government launches new assaults, a situation she termed "unacceptable."
Also Wednesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the top U.S. military leader said Syria's air defenses are five times more sophisticated than what the allied coalition faced in Libya and its extensive stockpile of chemical weapons is 100 times larger. The country is also far more diverse than Libya demographically, ethnically and religiously.
Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told U.S. lawmakers the situation in Syria is "terrible" but has "no simple answers." They said the United States will have to build a multilateral coalition for potential military action. Dempsey also said Syria's opposition numbers 100 groups.
Republican Senator John McCain has called for U.S. air strikes to end Mr. Assad's bloody crackdown. He and other powerful senators have also raised the possibility of arming the Syrian rebels.
In New York, Russia's U.N. envoy accused Libya of training Syrian opposition fighters in Libyan camps and sending them back to Syria to attack pro-Assad forces. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told the U.N. Security Council that the Libyan authorities are supporting what he called a "special training center for the Syrian revolutionaries" which sends people "to Syria to attack the legal government."
Churkin did offer further information.
Russia has been unhappy with how the international community has implemented Security Council resolutions, mandating the protection of Libyan civilians during the fight for liberation from Moammar Gadhafi's 42-year long dictatorship.
In council discussions on the nearly year-long government crackdown in Syria, Russia has repeatedly invoked Libya as a bad example and worked to prevent any kind of international interference in the Syrian conflict.