BEIRUT – Syria's government said Tuesday it was ready to act on a U.N. call to evacuate civilians trapped in the rebellious central city of Homs for more than a week, but blamed rebels for obstructing efforts to get them out.
Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, chief of the U.N. observer mission in the country, has demanded that all warring parties in the conflict allow safe passage for women, children and sick people who need to leave the city and other combat zones.
Activists said shelling and clashes between rebel fighters and troops in Homs continued unabated Tuesday, underlining the difficulty in organizing any sort of evacuation. Fierce shelling was reported on the rebel-held districts of Khaldiyeh and Jouret el-Shayeh and nearby areas.
Troops backed by helicopter gunships were also bombarding the town of Rastan, north of Homs, which is controlled by rebels.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reiterated an urgent appeal for world leaders to intervene to stop the shelling that has trapped more than 1,000 families and "the systematic killings that the Syrian people in Homs are being subjected to."
A Foreign Ministry statement carried by state-run news agency SANA said the government has contacted the U.N. observer mission and local authorities in Homs to start efforts to bring out the trapped civilians.
"But the efforts of the U.N. monitors' mission failed in achieving this goal because of the armed terrorist groups' obstructions," the statement said. It charged that armed groups were using innocent civilians as "human shields."
The Syrian government regularly refers to the rebels as terrorists.
There was no immediate comment from the U.N. mission. On Sunday, Mood said the observers had been trying for the past week to bring out families and wounded trapped in Homs by regime shelling of rebel-held areas. The offensive is part of a broader push by President Bashar Assad's forces to regain rebel-held areas nationwide.
Activists say around 1,000 families have been trapped by ongoing government assaults in Homs. The Observatory says dozens of wounded people who could not get medicine or doctors to treat them were stuck there and in other rebel-controlled areas.
On Saturday, the U.N. said its 300 observers based in Syria were suspending all missions because of concerns for their safety after fighting intensified over the previous 10 days. But the monitors said they would remain in Damascus. Mood was to brief the U.N. Security Council in person on Tuesday amid growing concern that the escalating violence may spell the end of the monitoring effort and international envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan.
British U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said Monday that council members are eager to hear what Mood thinks.
"I think there will be a lot of member states of the council, including us, who will be questioning now what the future is for the mission and, therefore, by extension the Annan plan, in light of these recent developments on the ground," he said.
The three-month mandate of the observer mission expires July 20. Grant said he could not rule out that the council might end it before then.