THE bloodiest episode in Syria's civil war comes to a climax as government forces capture rebel stronghold in the city of Homs.
The fall of Baba Amr district after a 26-day bombardment raised fears of reprisals against the civilian population as troops of the 4th division commanded by President Bashar al-Assad's younger brother, Maher, are believed to have seized the area.
There were reports last night that Syrian troops were going house to house and rounding up boys as young as 12 in a sweep aimed at every male of fighting age. In a late diplomatic development, Russia and China, Syria's key allies in the United Nations, signalled the limits of their support for Mr Assad. They approved a Security Council statement that urged the regime to allow Baroness Amos, the UN's humanitarian affairs chief, to visit Syria and seek free access for aid agencies. The two powers vetoed a draft resolution last month that would have urged Mr Assad to step down.
Britain meanwhile deepened the regime's isolation by withdrawing its ambassador, Simon Collis, and all other British diplomats from Damascus for security reasons. The work of the British embassy has now been "suspended", although diplomatic ties have not formally been severed and the Syrian embassy will continue to function in London.
The rebel Free Syrian Army sought to put a positive gloss on the retreat of its Farouq and Khalid bin Walid battalions from Homs. "There has been a tactical withdrawal," Riad al-Assad, the group's commander, told Al Jazeera television. "The Free Army has left Baba Amr because of the brutal acts of the regime against civilians."
One fighter, however, conceded that the rebels had effectively been beaten. "We were running out of ammunition and we were completely outnumbered," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "But we will return to fight again soon. Assad will see that he can defeat us but he cannot conquer us."
Opposition activists feared a campaign of retribution against the 4,000 civilians thought to be inside Baba Amr. Tens of thousands living in districts nearby were also thought to be vulnerable.
The area has had no electricity and little food or medicine since the offensive began and freezing weather has worsened conditions. Some of the rare video footage to emerge from the area, where communication links were all but severed, showed residents crouching on a road as they tried to collect falling snow in buckets to serve as drinking water.
A daily ceasefire lasting two hours is needed to allow the delivery of humanitarian supplies to areas torn by fighting, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Yesterday, an ICRC spokesman said the organisation had received "positive indicators from the Syrian authorities" that this demand would be accepted.
The United States said it would be a "good step forward" if the Assad regime allowed aid into the besieged neighborhood, but voiced scepticism.
"Virtually the entire international community has been clamoring for humanitarian access for a long, long time, and particularly into Homs," said state department spokesmen Victoria Nuland.
Any such move could come too late for the residents of Baba Amr. Most of the 7,000 pro-regime forces that marched into the largely Sunni district were members of Mr Assad's Alawite minority, a sect of Shia Islam. They have already been accused of atrocities against the Sunni majority, from whose ranks the opposition is largely drawn.
French journalist Edith Bouvier arrived in Lebanon along with French photographer William Daniels, Nicolas Sarkozy announced. They had been trapped in Baba Amr since the same attack that killed Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, on February 22. Miss Bouvier's leg was broken in the incident.
While Mr Assad may believe he has turned the tide of the uprising, it is not the first time the rebels have been forced to flee Baba Amr. They last withdrew after being defeated in November, but were able to return as government forces were deployed to counter unrest elsewhere in the country. Previous experience suggests that, although Mr Assad retains the upper hand thanks to the loyalty of the Alawite-dominated officer ranks, he does not have enough reliable soldiers to defeat the rebels completely.
Even so, the insurgents were thought to have suffered heavier losses than before during the latest offensive in Homs. There were fears that infighting and the lack of a proper command structure were hampering the FSA's ability to challenge the government.