Destruction in Homs
Destruction in HomsAFP photo

Russia on Thursday blocked a UN Security Council demand that Syria allow immediate access to thousands of civilians trapped by a government offensive on the city of Homs, diplomats said, according to the AFP news agency.

According to the diplomats, Russia's opposition to the statement proposed by council members Australia and Luxembourg was a new sign of a growing international split over the 26-month old conflict.

The statement, sought "immediate, safe and unhindered access" to Homs, where President Bashar al-Assad's forces have been joined by terrorists from Lebanese group Hizbullah against rebels.

UN leader Ban Ki-moon raised fears this week for an estimated 2,500 civilians that he said were "trapped" in Homs' Old City. UN humanitarian agencies say they have medical supplies ready but cannot get in, reported AFP.

Russia, Assad's key international ally, similarly blocked a UN Security Council call last month for access to rebel held Qusayr until government forces had taken the key town.

In that instance, Britain had circulated a draft statement to fellow members voicing “grave concern about the situation in al-Qusayr, Syria, and in particular the impact on civilians of the ongoing fighting.”

Russia, however, blocked the draft text, saying it was “not advisable to speak out as the UN Security Council didn’t when Qusayr was taken by the opposition.”

Australia and Luxembourg proposed Thursday’s statement in a bid to strengthen calls for access made by Ban and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), reported AFP.

The proposed statement expresses "grave concern about the estimated 2,500 civilians trapped in Homs."

It calls on the Syrian government "to facilitate immediate, safe and unhindered access, in accordance with the United Nations guiding principles of humanitarian assistance." The statement stresses that medical assistance was particularly urgent in Homs.

It said rebel and government forces should allow civilians to leave Homs, and highlighted "the primary responsibility of the Syrian government in this regard."

Russia asked for a 24 hour delay when the statement was first proposed but when the latest deadline for agreement came up this morning, put a hold on the declaration by the 15-nation body.

"The Russians have asked for changes," said one UN diplomat. "What they are asking means that there is no chance we will agree anything today, even though the situation is now urgent," added a second UN diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Russia and China have used their powers as permanent members of the Security Council to veto three western proposed resolutions which sought to increase pressure on Assad.

Russia, a close ally of Syria, supplies it with ground-to-surface interceptor missiles as well as warplanes and helicopters and other heavy machinery meant for national self-defense.

It recently indicated that it plans to provide President Bashar Al-Assad with advanced S-300 missiles despite a request by Israel not to do so.

Moscow defends its military sales to Syria by arguing that it is only fulfilling contracts signed before the current conflict broke out in March 2011.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that his country would also not rule out sending fresh arms to the Syrian regime.