Syrian government forces barred workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross from entering the Baba Amr district in the city of Homs on Sunday, as they carried out “mop-up” operations.
Security forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad raped and executed civilian residents in the quarter as part of those operations, human rights activists reported. The onslaught followed the heavy shelling and rocket fire that had killed veteran American journalist Marie Colvin a week earlier, as well as French photographer Remi Ochlik.
ICRC workers were later able to evacuate injured French journalist Edith Bouvier and get her to Beirut, where she was taken to France aboard an ambulance plane. UK photojournalist Paul Conroy had managed to escape the quarter several days earlier with the help of a 35-member Avaaz volunteer activist team, 13 members of which died in the effort to rescue him.
Videos uploaded by Syrian activists showed Syrian Air Force planes over the weekend pummeling the major population centers in the city of Rastan, north of Homs, with bombing raids. The city is home to 100,000 civilians and is located near the Rastan dam and a large bridge linking northern Syria with the southern region of the country.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) withdrew from the city, fearing its presence had drawn the bombing and saying in a statement that it was hoped its withdrawal would entice the government forces away.
An activist told reporters that given the bombing of Rastan by the Syrian Air Force, it is expected that Assad's forces will next target Idlib, and then Dir al-Zur.
Idlib has been one of the hotbeds of anti-government protests against the Assad regime since the uprising was ignited by the Arab Spring one year ago, and an FSA logistics base is located there. In addition, because the province is situation near the Turkish border, refugees and Syrian Army defectors often use its villages as a transition point for leaving the country.
It was in Idlib that New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid scribbled his final notes and died trying to escape on horseback through the border to Turkey. Shadid, it turned out, was allergic to horses and died as the result of a severe asthma attack.
Nearly 8,000 Syrian civilians have been murdered by Assad government forces in the past year in the regime's attempt to quell the uprising, with approximately 2,000 security troops having died as well.
The United Nations Human Rights Council has ruled the Syrian leader is legally responsible for the brutality of his troops, and has charged him with crimes against humanity.
Russia and China, both of whom are permanent members of U.N. Security Council, have repeatedly blocked that body from referring the matter to the International Criminal Court at The Hague.