BEIRUT: Thousands trapped in rebel areas of the Syrian city of Homs are living in dismal conditions and suffering severe food and medical shortages, say activists, who appealed for help to evacuate civilians safely.
"Nothing is allowed in or out of the besieged areas," Homs-based activist Yazan said Wednesday, urging international agencies to help "save... the children, women and the elderly."
"Most men inside the besieged areas are wanted by the regime" of President Bashar al-Assad, said Yazan, adding that humanitarian organisations "must help evacuate the women and children with guarantees that they won't be detained."
The appeal by Yazan, who did not give his full name for security reasons, comes 15 months into a suffocating army siege on rebel areas in the central city.
"Most people are showing symptoms of malnutrition. There is no clean drinking water," and diseases "are spreading", he told AFP via the Internet.
Five days ago, the rebel Islamic council in Homs, which the activist said "represents the families here," issued a video statement in which cleric Abul Hareth pleaded for help on behalf of "500 families."
"I call on all humanitarian organisations... to pressure (Assad's) regime to end this humanitarian disaster suffered by women, children and the elderly," said the sheikh.
A man named Abu Bilal, who has been trapped in Homs for more than a year, said: "People are going crazy here. There's no sugar, bulgur or rice... We are on the way to mass tragedy".
Activists have frequently appealed to international aid organisations to deliver assistance to rebel-held areas, but access to them has been denied.
Meanwhile, the army has used tanks and its air force to pound the neighbourhoods near daily.
"Thousands of people are living in the besieged areas of Homs," the country's third city, said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman.
Civilians from rebel areas were often harassed by the security forces, even if they had fled their neighbourhoods.
"Across Syria, residents of neighbourhoods that have witnessed battles are under constant surveillance, and often face arbitrary detention," he said.
Speaking to AFP, Human Rights Watch researcher Lama Fakih described obstructions to humanitarian aid entering the besieged areas as "absolutely illegal. All parties need to facilitate humanitarian access."
Fakih said Assad's government "has imposed a strategy across the country, whereby they imprison the population in a particular area, and don't allow people out or assistance in".
This policy, said Fakih, has been used in a handful of rebel neighbourhoods in Homs but also the Eastern Ghouta area near Damascus.
"They do this in order to put pressure on people to abandon the rebels," she added.
Activists describe Homs, strategically located on the road linking Damascus to the coast, as "the capital of the revolution" against Assad.
Most of it has been retaken by the army.