United Nations humanitarian chief Valerie Amos has visited Baba Amr, becoming the first international official to be allowed to enter the embattled Syrian district since fighting began.
Her visit is expected to result in the first outside assessment of conditions in an area of Homs city which has been the target of heavy military shelling and the scene of unquantifiable deaths, including those of Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik.
It comes after Bashar Assad’s regime rebuffed an earlier request by Baroness Amos to visit.
The UN chief said the aim of yesterday’s mission was to “urge all sides to allow unhindered access for humanitarian relief workers so they can evacuate the wounded and deliver essential supplies”.
Once in Baba Amr she spent around 45 minutes surveying the devastation, accompanied by officials from the Syrian Red Crescent who said it appeared most of the inhabitants have left the stricken district.
Many are understood to have decamped to outlying areas where relief teams have been distributing food parcels, blankets and baby milk.
Despite international appeals, the Syrian government has still refused to allow any aid workers into Baba Amr, claiming security risks. But activists have accused the government of conducting a “mopping-up” operation to hide its activities.
“They haven’t let anyone in for a week, and now they are going to let them in?” Homs activists Tarek Badrakhan told reporters. “Today it’s simple: They finished their crimes and hid all the proof. Now they think they can show that everything is normal.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said: “ICRC can confirm that Baroness Amos accompanied the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) team into Baba Amr. SARC volunteers said most of the inhabitants of Baba Amr appeared to have left. They seem to have departed to other suburbs and outlying areas.
“Those destinations include areas where ICRC and SARC teams have been distributing assistance in recent days.”
Baba Amr has become emblematic of the bitter struggle against 11 months of violent repression.
Opposition fighters had been in control of the neighbourhood for several months as the regime shelled civilian areas.
Last week troops seized the district and government forces subsequently blocked humanitarian access.
The ICRC said it had provided food and hygiene items to 450 families in Abel yesterday, around 10km south of Homs. Many of those displaced from Baba Amr have fled to the area.
“It was cold and it was clear that many of the families we helped had left their homes in a hurry,” a spokesman said.
The organisation will provide mattresses and blankets in the coming two or three days.
Regime forces now appear to be turning their attention to other rebellious areas, such as the northern province of Idlib near the border with Turkey.
The shift suggests the Syrian military is unable to launch large operations simultaneously across the country, despite its strong security services.
More than 7,500 civilians have been killed so far in the rebellion against the corrupt Ba’ath Party and the Assad family dictatorship, the UN estimates.
Prime Minister David Cameron has spoken of his frustration at Britain’s inability to do more directly to prevent the slaughter in Syria, and said the UK was gathering evidence for a prosecution of Assad.
The rapidly deteriorating security and humanitarian situation has also led the UK to withdraw its diplomatic staff from Syria and close its embassy in Damascus.