TUNIS The first of the wounded and sick women and children trapped in the besieged Baba Amro district of Homs were evacuated on Friday as international pressure mounted on the Syrian government to open up the country to humanitarian aid.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said the Syrian Arab Red Crescent had brought out seven Syrian women and children and taken them to a hospital in Homs.
"It's a first step forward," ICRC chief spokeswoman Carla Haddad told Reuters in Geneva. "The priority now is evacuating the seriously wounded or sick."
News of the evacuation came as Western and Gulf Arab nations met in Tunis to escalate pressure on President Bashar al-Assad over his crackdown on 11 months of protests.
Speaking at the meeting, Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Feisal said he supported arming the rebels.
"I think it's an excellent idea," he said at the start of a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who warned Assad would pay a heavy price for the violence in Syria and said he must allow in urgent humanitarian relief.
"If the Assad regime refuses to allow this life-saving aid to reach civilians, it will have even more blood on its hands," Clinton said. "So too will those nations that continue to protect and arm the regime."
She appealed to Syrian security forces to disobey orders from their commanders to carry out acts of violence.
"Their (Syrian security forces) continuing to kill their brothers and sisters is a stain on their honour," Clinton said.
"Their refusal to continue this slaughter will make them heroes in the eyes of not only Syrians but people of conscience everywhere. They can help the guns fall silent."
With the bombardment of opposition-held neighbourhoods in Homs entering its fourth week on Friday, the ICRC has been negotiating with the Syrian government and opposition forces to bring out the sick and wounded from Baba Amro.
The activist group Avaaz, giving higher numbers than the ICRC, said the Syrian Red Crescent had evacuated 10 wounded residents and 30 women and children from Baba Amro.
It said the opposition Free Syrian Army in Homs and another opposition group allowed four Syrian Red Crescent ambulances to enter the area, and that members of the ICRC were waiting for the evacuated outside Baba Amro to ensure proper treatment and safe passage for the wounded.
But foreign journalists trapped in Baba Amro, two of them badly wounded, refused to leave the besieged neighbourhood without an ICRC and foreign diplomatic presence, and a commitment to a full humanitarian ceasefire, it said.
Two of the journalists, Edith Bouvier and Paul Conroy, need urgent medical care. The bodies of slain journalists Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, killed this week, remain in Baba Amro.
A French and ICRC plan to get international medical teams into Baba Amro to extract the foreign journalists and tend to the neighbourhood's most badly wounded was rejected by the Assad government, Avaaz said.
And with the wounded being taken only as far as a hospital in Homs, it was unlikely men would agree to leave the area for fear of falling into the hands of Syrian security forces.
Opposition activists said that Syrian government artillery fire killed at least 15 people in Homs on Friday.
"Baba Amro is being hit with 122mm artillery directed at it from surrounding villages. A father and his 14-year-old son were among those killed. They were trying to flee the shelling when shrapnel hit them in the street," Mohammad al-Homsi said.
Activists also said Syrian security forces lined up and shot dead at least 18 people in a village in the central western Hama province. A video uploaded by activists showed people wrapping the bloodied bodies of children and at least four adults. Several had been shot through the head.
After the talks in Tunis, Tunisian foreign minister Rafik Abdessalem said the meeting of more than 50 western and Arab countries had backed an Arab League demand for a joint Arab and United Nations force to help end the violence in Syria. However, this point was not included in the meeting's final communique.
Abdessalem, who chaired Friday's inaugural "Friends of Syria" meeting in the Tunisian capital, also said western and Arab powers would probably recognise the opposition Syrian National Council as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people during the their next meeting in Turkey.
"We have gone half the way and we will probably do the other half in Turkey," he said.
The communique called on Syria to "immediately cease all violence" to allow the United Nations access to Homs, and to let agencies deliver aid to civilians affected by the violence.
The Friends of Syria also pledged to deliver humanitarian supplies immediately if Syria's government "stopped its assault on civilian areas and permitted access."
Moves for tougher action against Syria have been stymied by Russian and Chinese vetoes in the U. n. Security Council and a lack of appetite for military action along the lines of the NATO bombing campaign that helped force out Libya's Muammar Gaddafi.
The head of the Syrian National Council expressed disappointment in the Tunis meeting. "This conference does not meet the aspirations of the Syrian people," SNC chief Burhan Ghalioun told Reuters.
But in a sign the international community is seeking ways around the Security Council deadlock, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he would dispatch former U.N. chief Kofi Annan to Syria as a joint U.N.-Arab League envoy.
And in a blow to Assad, the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas turned publically against their long-time ally on Friday. "I salute the heroic people of Syria who are striving for freedom democracy and reform," Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said.
The exiled political leadership of Hamas, based in Damascus for over a decade, quietly quit the Syrian capital recently but had tried to deny their absence had anything to do with the revolt.
Western and Arab nations are also trying to enforce sanctions, which include travel bans, asset freezes, a halt to purchases of Syrian oil, ceasing infrastructure investment and financial services relating to Syria, reducing diplomatic ties and preventing arms shipments to the Syrian government.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said the European Union, which has already imposed sanctions on Syrian officials, businesses and oil exports, would freeze assets of the Syrian Central Bank from Monday.
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