By ELIZABETH A. KENNEDY, Associated Press
BEIRUT (AP) — The U.N. humanitarian chief toured the shattered Syrian district of Baba Amr on Wednesday but found most residents had fled following a bloody military siege, while activists accused the government of trying to cover up evidence of atrocities there.
The monthlong crackdown on the rebellious Homs neighborhood brought international condemnation, and the top U.S. military leader said Wednesday that President Barach Obama has asked the Pentagon for a preliminary review of military options in Syria.
These include enforcement of a no-fly zone and humanitarian airlifts, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate. However, both he and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Obama still believes that economic sanctions and international diplomatic isolation were the best ways to pressure Syrian President Bashar Assad into handing over power.
Wednesday's visit to Baba Amr by the U.N. humanitarian chief, Valerie Amos, was the first by an independent outside observer since the Syrian military began its month-long assault of the rebellious neighborhood. A key stronghold of the uprising against Assad, it was wrested from rebel control on March 1.
The Syrian regime has kept the neighborhood sealed off over the past six days, saying it was too dangerous for humanitarian workers to enter. But activists accused the government of engaging in a "mopping-up" operation to hide their atrocities.
"They haven't let anyone in for a week, and now they are going to let them in?" Homs activists Tarek Badrakhan told The Associated Press. "Today it's simple: They finished their crimes and hid all the proof. Now they think they can show that everything is normal."
A spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross said Amos entered Baba Amr with a team from the Syrian Red Crescent that had been waiting nearly a week to be allowed in and found the ravaged neighborhood deserted.
"The Syrian Arab Red Crescent stayed about 45 minutes inside the neighborhood," Red Cross spokesman Hicham Hassan said in Geneva. "Volunteers say that most inhabitants have fled Baba Amr."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lashed out at the delays in letting aid workers in.
"The regime's refusal to allow humanitarian workers to help feed the hungry, tend to the injured, bury the dead, marks a new low," she said. "Tons of food and medicine are standing by while more civilians die and the regime launches new assaults."
Amos said the aim of her two-day visit to Syria was "to urge all sides to allow unhindered access for humanitarian relief workers so they can evacuate the wounded and deliver essential supplies." She met with Syria's foreign minister and was to meet other government officials on Thursday, but it was unclear whether she would be allowed to return to Baba Amr or deliver any aid.
The U.N. says more than 7,500 people have been killed since Syria's uprising began. Activists put the death toll at more than 8,000.
In Washington, Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee the Pentagon has done a commander's assessment focused on mission, enemy, terrain, troops and time, at Obama's request, and would be ready if a decision were made for military action in Syria.
Both he and Panetta delivered a sober assessment of Syria's sophisticated air defenses and its extensive stockpile of chemical weapons — a strategic reality check to demands for U.S. military action to end Assad's deadly crackdown on his people.
Republican Sen. John McCain has called on the Obama administration to launch U.S. airstrikes to end Assad's crackdown, but Panetta pushed back Wednesday against the demand.
"What doesn't make sense is to take unilateral action right now," Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "I've got to make very sure we know what the mission is. ... Achieving that mission at what price?"
Panetta and Dempsey described a well-armed Syria that bears little resemblance to what the U.S. military and its allies faced in Libya. Syria's air defenses are five times more sophisticated than Libya's, and its chemical and biological weapons stockpile is 100 times larger, they said.