x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

GCC urges UN Security Council to hold crisis meeting to prevent Homs 'massacre'

Rebel-held districts of Homs have been the target of a fierce Syrian army offensive since Saturday.

RIYADH // Arab states of the Gulf yesterday urged the UN Security Council to hold an emergency meeting to prevent a "massacre" in Syria's central city of Homs, the target of a fierce offensive by regime troops.

In a statement, the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) announced they are "following with deep concern ... the unjust siege Syrian regime forces are imposing on Homs ... with military support from the militias of the (Shiite) Lebanese Hizbollah movement and under the umbrella of Iran's Revolutionary Guards."

Rebel-held districts of Homs have been the target of a new army offensive since Saturday.

The six Gulf monarchies — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia — urged the Security Council "to urgently meet to break the siege on Homs and prevent the Syrian regime and its allies from committing horrific massacres."

Dubbed the "capital of the revolution" by activists, Homs is important because it is on the road linking Damascus to the coast and its central location is also key as a supply route.

The third largest city in Syria was one of the first to join the uprising against President Bashar Al Assad's regime more than two years ago.

Syrian President Bashar Al Assad's troops pressed a fierce three-day assault against rebels in Homs yesterday but failed to make any new advances, a watchdog and activists said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that members of Lebanon's Shiite Hizbollah militia were fighting alongside government forces on one of the city's main fronts.

Homs city is home to a patchwork of religious communities. Most of Syria's rebels — like the majority population — are Sunni Muslims, while Assad's clan belongs to the Alawite community.

Elsewhere, the army kept up its shelling of rebel areas in and near Damascus as it tried to secure the capital, said the Observatory.

Among the military's targets were Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus and Qaboon in the east, as well as rebel bastion Daraya south-west of the capital.

More than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria's war since March 2011, the Observatory estimates, and more than 1.7 million have fled to neighbouring countries.

But Syria's neighbours have closed or tightened restrictions at several border crossings, leaving tens of thousands of people stranded within Syria's dangerous frontier regions, US-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch warned on Monday. It said Iraq, Jordan and Turkey had all restricted the flow of people trying to flee.

Only Lebanon, which has limited control over its own borders and is now hosting over half a million refugees, had remained open to refugees. "Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey risk turning Syria into an open-air prison for tens of thousands of Syrians unable to escape the carnage in their country," said Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Neither the pressure those countries are under due to rising refugee numbers, nor giving aid inside Syria, can justify violating people's basic right to seek asylum from persecution and other abuse."

Officials in Iraq and Jordan could not immediately be reached for comment but a senior Turkish official who declined to be named said there had "been no changes in Turkey's open-door policy towards Syrian refugees."

*With additional reporting from Reuters