HOMS, Syria/UNITED NATIONS: Syrian forces took full control on Thursday over the Old City of Homs, a city once associated with scenes of joyous pro-democracy crowds but now famed for images of ruin that epitomize the brutality of the 3-year-old civil war.
After holding out for nearly two years, a second day of evacuations of rebel fighters saw them exit the “capital of the revolution” in bus convoys to rebel-held territory further north under a deal agreed between the insurgents and forces loyal to President Bashar Assad.
“Old Homs has been completely cleansed of armed terrorist groups,” state television said.
Homs governor Talal Barazi told Reuters that Homs would be “declared a secure city” and reconstruction would start after the evacuation.
Although the area had been cleared of insurgents, the army is not expected to move into the Old City until Friday when it will be checked for explosives.
Rebels smiled to cameras as they left, but the fall of Syria’s third largest city to regime forces is a major blow to the opposition and a boost for Assad weeks before his likely re-election.
Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television aired footage from Homs of a line of rebel fighters, some carrying guns and wearing scarves around their faces, walking to green buses, passing government troops.
At the same time as rebels were evacuated from Homs, dozens of captives held by rebels in the northern provinces of Aleppo and Latakia were freed as part of the same deal.
Barazi told state media that 70 people abducted by rebels were released, including five children and 17 women.
In Aleppo, rebels bombed a once luxurious, historic hotel being used as an army base, leveling the building and causing multiple casualties in a giant explosion carried off by digging tunnels under the complex, activists and militants said.
The blast set off a gigantic mushroom cloud next to the historic citadel of Aleppo, collapsing the Carlton Hotel in a government-held area near the front lines in the city, one of the bloodiest and destructive battlegrounds of the war.The death toll from the Aleppo bombing was not immediately known.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group of activists, said at least 14 soldiers were killed in the blast. The Islamic Front, Syria’s biggest rebel alliance which claimed the attack, declared killing 50 soldiers.
In a live broadcast from the site of blast, Syrian state TV’s correspondent in Aleppo stood on a huge pile of rubble with twisted metal and palm trees sticking out, saying that the army had been using the building as a base and soldiers were positioned there at the time of the explosion.
The report did not mention casualties. The Syrian government does not publicize its casualties in the civil war.
The correspondent said the rebels blew up the building by tunneling underneath and planting explosives.
“They use tunnels like rats because they cannot face the Syrian Arab Army,” the correspondent said, adding that the explosion felt like an earthquake to those around Aleppo.
The attack was the second carried out by the Islamic Front against the Carlton. The first, allegedly carried out also through explosives-packed tunnels, caused a partial collapse of the building in February. The Front, an alliance of several Islamic groups fighting to topple Assad, appears to favor this technique and has used it to carry out deadly attacks against government forces in Aleppo and Idlib provinces.
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry Thursday stood side-by-side with Syrian opposition chief Ahmad Jarba in a public show of support, but made no mention of the rebels’ plea for heavy weapons to help end the war.
Jarba, head of the National Coalition, has said he would ask the U.S. administration for anti-aircraft weapons to battle daily barrel bombings unleashed by Assad and help change the balance militarily on the ground.
U.S. officials privately acknowledged he made the request in talks with Kerry at the State Department, but they refused to be drawn on the response.
Earlier, the U.S. stepped up its pressure on Damascus, sanctioning six Syrian officials and a Russian bank for their alleged support of the government.
The Treasury said Tempbank, based in Moscow, has provided millions of dollars in cash and has helped facilitate financial services to the government.
Sanctions also were slapped on the bank’s senior executive, Mikhail Gagloev, who the U.S. claims has personally traveled to Damascus to make deals with Assad’s government.
“In one instance, Tempbank arranged to deliver millions of dollars in cash to Vnukovo Airport in Moscow for pick-up by cash couriers working for the Central Bank of Syria,” the department said in a statement. “In addition to its close cooperation with the Central Bank of Syria, Tempbank has facilitated deals and provided financial services to SYTROL, a Syrian state oil company sanctioned by the United States and the European Union.”
David Cohen, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said the action builds on the Treasury Department’s ongoing effort to apply economic pressure on the Syrian government by “choking off access to the international financial system.”
“We are committed to deterring those who contribute to violence and instability in Syria and will continue to aggressively target individuals and entities supporting the Assad regime,” Cohen said.
Two Syrian refining businesses, Banias Refinery Co. and Homs Refinery Co., also were placed on the U.S. sanctions list.
Brig Gen. Bassam al-Hassan, an adviser to Assad, was among the Syrian officials sanctioned. Hassan is Assad’s representative to Syria’s government agency responsible for developing and producing nonconventional weapons and missiles, the department said.
An Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus that killed hundreds of people was blamed on Assad’s government and brought the United States to the brink of military intervention in Syria. Damascus denied involvement.
The five other Syrian officials sanctioned were Hussein Arnous, minister of public works; Ahmad al-Qadri, minister of agriculture; Ismael Ismael, minister of finance; Kinda Shammat, minister of social affairs and a former Syrian representative to the U.N. Development Fund; and Hassan Hijazi, minister of labor.
To date, the United States has imposed sanctions on nearly 200 individuals and entities since the onset of unrest in Syria, including the government of Syria, its central bank and affiliated oil companies.
In New York, the head of the mission charged with destroying Syria’s chemical weapons says the last 16 containers of chemical agents awaiting transport out of the country are in a contested area near Damascus that is currently inaccessible.
Sigrid Kaag told reporters after briefing the U.N. Security Council that it was not possible to arrange a cease-fire so authorities can get to the site where five containers of the most dangerous chemicals and 11 containers of less toxic chemicals – representing 8 percent of Syria’s declared stockpile – are awaiting removal.
Syria missed an April 27 deadline for all chemical agents to be removed or destroyed in the country.
Kaag, who heads the joint U.N. and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons mission, appealed to countries with influence on the armed groups to ensure unfettered access so the 16 containers can be removed.
But Western members of the U.N. Security Council voiced concerns about ambiguities and discrepancies in Syria’s original declaration of its poison gas arsenal that Damascus submitted last year to a global chemical arms watchdog, diplomats said.
“Some council members were expressing concerns about unanswered questions on the declaration and stressed the need to get to bottom of discrepancies,” a council envoy told Reuters.
Diplomats said the delegations that raised those suspicions during the meeting included Britain, France and the United States, which believe Syrian President Bashar Assad never came clean about the full extent of his chemical arsenal despite his promises to destroy the entire program.
They also expressed unease that Syria has yet to destroy 12 facilities it had previously used to produce chemical arms, diplomats said.
During the meeting, diplomats said Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin praised Assad’s government’s cooperation with Kaag’s mission, while U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power, French Ambassador Gerard Araud and British envoy Peter Wilson condemned the recent chlorine gas attacks, which the West blames on Assad’s forces.