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Apparent high-level defection in Syria; U.N. relief head sees 'devastated' areas

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 10:26 PM EST, Wed March 7, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Self-described deputy minister says, "I am joining the revolution of his noble people"
  • The U.N.'s Valerie Amos says she is trying to arrange humanitarian access
  • Aid is standing by while the regime "launches new assaults," U.S. secretary of state says
  • Amos and a Red Crescent team get into Baba Amr briefly

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(CNN) -- The growing ranks of Syria's disaffected appeared to get a high-profile addition Wednesday, when a man identifying himself as Abdo Hussam el Din, the country's deputy oil minister, announced in a video posted on YouTube that he was defecting from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

"I am joining the revolution of this noble people who will not accept injustice," says the man in Arabic. "I've been part of this government for 33 years and I have acquired many titles, and I do not want to retire serving the crimes of this regime." He appears to be the same man pictured on the government's oil website, which says he was appointed deputy oil minister in August 2009.

"I decided to join the voice of the righteous despite the notion that this regime will burn my house and harass my family and will invent many lies," he adds.

The announcement came on the same day that the United Nations emergency relief chief met in Syria with top government officials and visited an area ravaged by weeks of government attacks, describing it as devastated.

A man identifying himself as Syria\'s deputy oil minister, Abdo Hussam el Din, said in a YouTube video he was defecting.
A man identifying himself as Syria's deputy oil minister, Abdo Hussam el Din, said in a YouTube video he was defecting.

A spokeswoman for the U.N.'s Valerie Amos said Amos visited the Bab Amr neighborhood of Homs after meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem.

"Valerie told me on the phone from Damascus this afternoon that the areas of Bab Amr that she saw were devastated," said the spokeswoman, Amanda Pitt of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in an e-mail to CNN.

Wednesday's meeting with al-Moallem followed complaints by Amos that the Syrian government was refusing to let her into the country, where the regime has launched a brutal crackdown on a year-long uprising.

Amos and al-Moallem discussed the aim of the U.N. officials's visit, intended to gain access for humanitarian organizations to areas affected by heavy fighting, Pitt said in an e-mail to CNN.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said Amos entered Baba Amr along with a team from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. The visit lasted 45 minutes, ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan said.

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Amos' visit came as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lashed out at the Syria government for the growing humanitarian crisis.

"The regime's refusal to allow humanitarian workers to help feed the hungry, tend to the injured, (and) bury the dead marks a new low," Clinton said in Washington "Tons of food and medicine are standing by while more civilians die and the regime launches new assaults. This is unacceptable, and we agree completely with a great majority of the international community. The regime must, as it promised last November, withdraw its forces, release political prisoners, permit peaceful protests and allow international journalists to do their jobs, which is to tell the truth."

Syria, which blames the violence on "terrorists," said on the state-run news agency SANA that Amos "stressed respect for Syria's sovereignty and rejection of using the humanitarian dimension for political purposes."

Al-Moallem "stressed that the Syrian leadership is doing its best to provide the foodstuffs and medical care and services for all citizens despite the burdens it faces because of the unfair sanctions imposed by some Arab and Western countries on Syria," SANA reported.

In Syria, opposition activists reported yet another day of widespread violence by the government.

At least 40 people were killed Wednesday, including seven children, one woman and two military recruits, according to the opposition Local Coordination Committees in Syria. The death toll included 26 people in Homs, seven in Idlib, two in the Aleppo suburb of Atareb, three in Daraa and two in Damascus suburbs, the group said.

SANA said 14 "army and law enforcement martyrs" were buried Wednesday.

Amos wanted to go to Homs and Bab Amr to see for herself the impact of the fighting and lack of humanitarian access, and al-Moallem said she could go wherever she wanted, according to Pitt, the U.N. OCHA spokeswoman.

"Valerie said they tried to enter opposition-held areas in Homs but were not able to do so," Pitt said in the e-mail to CNN. "Security was clearly an issue and they heard gunfire several times. She also said that Homs feels as though it has closed down; they saw very few people around."

Amos will continue to try to arrange humanitarian access with partners including the diplomatic community, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, the ICRC, and perhaps the education and health ministers, Pitt said.

Clinton called on all countries to come together to bring an end to the violence by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

"It is past time for all Syrians to break with Assad and stand against this bloodshed," she said.

Syrian authorities last week granted teams from the Red Cross and the Red Crescent permission to enter Baba Amr; but on Friday, the ambulances and aid workers carrying food and medical supplies were turned away.

Opposition activists in Homs say al-Assad's regime had been trying to clean up evidence of a bloody massacre in Baba Amr before aid workers arrived.

On Wednesday, the Red Crescent team found that most of the people who had been living in Baba Amr had fled, according to the ICRC's Hassan, who spoke to CNN from Geneva, Switzerland.

SANA said authorities have restored "stability and security" to the neighborhood and that it was attacked by "armed terrorist groups." It said workers were "removing the debris left by the terrorists."

State TV said Wednesday that Baba Amr residents were "returning to their homes as the destruction caused by armed terrorists is being restored."

Before she traveled to Syria, Amos said, "My aim is to urge all parties to allow unhindered access for humanitarian relief workers so that they can evacuate the wounded and deliver essential supplies."

In New York, at a meeting of the U.N. Security Council, Russian envoy Vitaly Churkin said Syrian rebels were being trained at a camp inside Libya.

"We have expressed concerns about the noncontrol of Libyan arms in the region. However, it is not just weapons that are going abroad" Churkin said. "We have received information that in Libya, with the support of the authority, there is a special training center for the Syrian revolutionaries, and people are sent to Syria to attack the legal government. This is completely unacceptable."

Such activity, he said, "is undermining stability in the Middle East."

Libyan authorities were not immediately available for comment.

The British Ambassador to Syria, Simon Collis, said it was clear al-Assad's regime was "doomed" but would take time to fall.

Collis, who left the British Embassy in Damascus slightly more than a week ago due to security fears, added that the people of Syria do not have a future while the unrest continues.

"People know that, that the regime is doomed," Collis said in England. "Many business people and others have told me that they understand this, they don't want to be part of it. They don't see a future for themselves or their families, but they're fearful of acting right now because the regime is still able to get them or their family. So it could go quite quickly because it is brittle, but I think it's more likely it will take some time before this comes to an end, but there's only one way it will end."

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Al-Assad continues to assert that the Syrian people support his regime. At a meeting Tuesday, he "underscored that the power of every state lies in popular support," SANA reported Wednesday. And al-Assad insisted that Syrians "have once more proved their ability to safeguard Syria and build the renewed Syria through their determination to pursue reforms in parallel with encountering the terrorism backed by foreign sides."

Crowds of people demonstrated Wednesday in support of the regime in Damascus, SANA reported.

Meanwhile, opposition activists reported heavy attacks by the Syrian regime.

A member of the Binnish Coordination Committee, a local opposition group, reported seeing 42 tanks and 131 armored personnel carriers heading toward Idlib. Activists were expecting the Syrian army to begin a full-fledged assault on the city.

In Hama, more than 15 homes were destroyed and an ancient citadel was severely damaged by artillery shelling from the regime, Local Coordination Committees activists said.

In Homs, dozens were wounded amid heavy shelling by regime forces, the LCC said.

In some Damascus neighborhoods, security forces carried out a raid-and-arrest campaign and demolished homes, the LCC said. In the Harasta suburb, people were wounded by gunfire from regime forces, and clashes were reported, the LCC said.

In Idlib, near the Turkish border, there was heavy and indiscriminate fire, the LCC said.

CNN cannot independently confirm reports across Syria because the government has severely restricted the access of international journalists. But the vast majority of reports out of Syria indicate that al-Assad's forces are slaughtering civilians in opposition hotbeds in an attempt to wipe out dissidents seeking his ouster.

China has evacuated most people working for its projects in Syria, China's state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

Air France flights between Paris and Damascus have been suspended because of the violence, the company said Wednesday.

The U.N. Security Council is circulating another proposed resolution to end the violence and pursue "immediate humanitarian access."

Preliminary discussion of the resolution has begun among the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Morocco, said Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Western diplomats said the goal is to bring Russia and China into the fold by creating a less harsh version of the last draft resolution -- which the two countries vetoed -- that would emphasize the humanitarian situation. They said they want the Russians and Chinese to join the call for a "permissive environment" for humanitarian access.

Russia, meanwhile, said Wednesday that humanitarian issues must be urgently resolved, Russian state-run news agency RIA Novosti said.

Russian diplomat Mikhail Bogdanov told the Syrian ambassador to Russia, Riyad Haddad, that the country backed the missions of Amos and former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the special joint envoy to Syria for the United Nations and the Arab League.

Russia is urging all parties to stop the violence and "create conditions for the real and inclusive political dialogue between Syrians without outside interference." Haddad "confirmed the readiness of the Syrian government for a constructive dialogue with the opposition," the news outlet said.

Annan began his visit to the region Wednesday in Cairo, where he was to meet with the league's secretary-general, Nabil Elaraby.

"He will then proceed to Damascus on Saturday to seek an urgent end to all violence and human rights violations and to initiate efforts to promote a peaceful solution," the United Nations said. 'He is also due to visit other countries in the region."

Also Wednesday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and League of Arab States Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby announced the appointment of long-time Palestinian diplomat Nasser Al Kidwa as Annan's deputy special envoy to Syria.

The Syrian government says that more than 2,000 security personnel have been killed.

The United Nations has said at least 7,500 people have died in the crackdown, while opposition activists put the toll at more than 9,000.

CNN's John Raedler, Kamal Ghattas, Josh Levs, Robyn Turner, Mitra Mobasherat, Amir Ahmed, Nada Husseini, Zarifmo Aslamshoyeva and Joe Sterling contributed to this report.

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