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Syria

Aid agencies call for evacuation of Syrian town Qusair

UN agencies and the International Red Cross have called for the evacuation of civilians trapped in the embattled town of al-Qusair. Syrian rebels and government troops have each called in reinforcements.

The calls to evacuate al-Qusair came amid reports on Sunday that Russia had blocked a British-backed UN Security Council declaration that would have condemned the siege of the city by Syrian government troops.

Unnamed Security Council diplomats told the Associated Press and the Reuters news agencies that Moscow blocked the draft declaration, because the council had not issued a condemnation when rebels seized the town from government control.

According to Reuters, the aborted draft declaration would have called on both government troops and rebels "to do their utmost to avoid civilians casualties and for the Syrian government to exercise its responsibility to protect civilians."

The draft specifically called on the Assad regime "to allow immediate, full and unimpeded access to impartial humanitarian actors, including UN agencies, to reach civilians trapped in al-Qusair."

Calls for civilian evacuation

UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos and UN human rights commissioner Navi Pillay said that as many as 1,500 wounded people were trapped in al-Qusair.

"We urge the parties to agree to an immediate cease-fire to allow humanitarian agencies to evacuate the wounded and provide life-saving treatment and supplies," the two UN officials said in a joint press release.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which has access to the city, also expressed concern at the danger posed to non-combatants.

"Civilians and the wounded are at risk of paying an even heavier price as the fighting continues," said Robert Mardini, head of the ICRC's Mideast operations.

Regime, rebels digging in

President Bashar al-Assad's regime and its Hezbollah ally have been fighting for two weeks to wrest al-Qusair from rebel hands. The city of 30,000 connects the capital Damascus to the Mediterranean Coast and lies near Lebanon, Hezbollah's home.

President Assad's Alawite religious group is concentrated in the coastal region. The Russian navy also leases the Mediterranean port of Tartus. Moscow is Syria's main arms supplier and has stirred outrage in the West for continuing to deliver weapons during the civil war.

According to the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Assad regime is reinforcing the areas it has captured north of al-Qusair.

On Friday, the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) said that rebel reinforcements had arrived in al-Qusair.

"The people will continue their struggle to liberate their land, whatever it takes, and will force Hezbollah to withdraw its forces from all of Syria," the SNC said in a press release.

In the capital Damascus, meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said that a car bomb exploded near a police station in the Jubar district, killing at least eight members of the Syrian security forces.

slk/ipj (AFP, AP, Reuters)