Syrian forces overrun opposition in Baba Amr

Seniora expects Russian position to soften after presidential polls

Syrian regime approves new constitution amid bloodshed

Hamas announces departure from Damascus

Syrian forces have overrun the Baba Amr district of the powder-keg city of Homs following a rebel retreat, potentially marking a turning point in President Bashar al-Assad's bid to crush an increasingly armed uprising.

As rebel fighters pulled back on Thursday, the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) warned of a "massacre" in Baba Amr, while relief agencies said they would urgently try to get there to deliver aid and evacuate the wounded.

The UN Security Council called on Syria to allow "immediate" humanitarian access to protest cities in a statement supported by Russia and China, who had vetoed two resolutions on the conflict that has claimed thousands of lives.

The SNC, citing "confusion" on the ground in Syria, said in Paris that it would provide leadership to an outgunned and fragmented force, and control the flow of arms to fighters.

The rebels said they had pulled out "tactically" from Baba Amr on Thursday, the second day of an all-out ground assault by the feared Fourth Armored Division led by Assad's younger brother Maher.

The storming of the rebel bastion began early Wednesday, following 27 straight days of relentless shelling of Homs, a central city that has been a protest hub since anti-regime demonstrations erupted in March last year.

Syrian authorities found the bodies of US journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik in Baba Amr after the rebels retreated, the foreign ministry said. The journalists were killed in a rocket attack last month.

Rebels "have pulled out tactically in order to protect the remaining civilians," said Colonel Riyadh al-Asaad, the leader of the Free Syrian Army, which is made up mostly of deserters.

The FSA was formed in mid-2011 in response to the brutal crackdown by Assad's forces on anti-regime protesters, and now boasts up to 40,000 armed fighters, although the numbers are impossible to verify.

A Syrian security official said in Damascus that the army was in total command of the Homs neighborhood.

State television aired what it said was footage filmed inside Baba Amr, including interviews with people it said were residents angry with the rebels.

The SNC urged the international community to act to prevent to protect residents, charging that the Fourth Armored Division was conducting "barbaric operations against civilians."

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 21 people were killed in Homs on Thursday, including 17 civilians caught up in the battle for control of Baba Amr.

In total, 39 people, including eight loyal soldiers and seven deserters, were killed in violence across Syria on Thursday, the Observatory said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent were preparing to urgently reach the conflict zone, an ICRC spokesman said.

"The ICRC and the SARC will go on Friday to Baba Amr to deliver humanitarian aid and evacuate the wounded," Damascus spokesman Saleh Dabbakeh told AFP.

French journalists Edith Bouvier, who sustained serious leg wounds in Syria, and William Daniels, trapped for days in bombarded Homs, escaped Syria for Lebanon, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said late Thursday.

"I have just spoken with Edith Bouvier, who is naturally exhausted, having suffered hugely, but she knows she is free and that she will soon be taken care of," said Sarkozy.

The French president said the pair could be brought back to France "tonight" in a government-owned plane if doctors gave their go-ahead.

Bouvier suffered multiple fractures in the same February 22 rocket attack on a makeshift media centre that killed Colvin and Ochlik.

Two short videos released by activists in Homs claimed to show the burials of the pair.

In the videos, a man claiming to be a doctor and dressed in a surgeon's green gown and a white coat opens body bags and shows the faces of the two slain journalists. Their names are inscribed on the respective body bags.

"We have no means to preserve the bodies due to a lack of electricity for the refrigerators," the man says in Arabic. "Therefore we have decided to bury them here, in a cemetery in Baba Amr."

Photographer Daniels was also on assignment for Le Figaro, and was trapped alongside Spaniard Javier Espinosa of El Mundo daily.

The Spanish daily said Espinosa had safely escaped to Beirut, despite claims in Syria that his body had been found alongside those of Colvin and Ochlik.

Another journalist wounded in the attack, British photographer Paul Conroy, was evacuated to Lebanon on Tuesday.

On the political front, the SNC said its military bureau, announced on Wednesday, would coordinate the flow of weapons to the rebels following mounting calls from Gulf Arab states for arms to be delivered despite US fears that Al-Qaeda may exploit any further militarization of the crisis.

"The SNC will be this link between those who want to help and the revolutionaries," its leader Burhan Ghalioun told reporters in Paris.

"It is out of the question that arms go into Syria in confusion," he added.

The assault on Baba Amr came as international envoy Kofi Annan said he hopes to travel to Damascus with a clear message that the "violence must stop."

Britain announced that it was following the United States in closing its embassy and pulling out its remaining diplomats in response to the "deterioration of the security situation in Damascus."

UN political chief B Lynn Pascoe told the Security Council on Tuesday that "well over 7,500" people have been killed since the start of the crackdown.

Europe's leaders meanwhile pledged to tighten the noose on Syria with fresh sanctions failing an end to violence and rights abuses by the regime.

Moscow may soften its opposition to coordinated international action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after Russia holds its presidential election next week, a leading Lebanese politician has said.

International efforts to stop Assad's violent crackdown on protests have been deadlocked after Russia and China vetoed an Arab and Western-backed draft U.N. resolution which would have paved the way for the Syrian ruler to step aside.

But Fouad Seniora, a leading Sunni Muslim politician and former prime minister, said Moscow's position had been influenced by domestic politics, with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin talking tough ahead of a March 4 election.

"The position (where) I believe there might be a chance for some sort of change is the Russian position - the Russian and the Chinese," Seniora told Reuters in an interview.

"The Syrian problem became a domestic issue in Russia. It is part of the election campaign ... (Syrian) blood is being used as a way of trading between Russia and the West," he said, adding that Russia might be "ready to discuss business in a more pragmatic way" after the vote.

Unlike Russia, which has a naval base on the Syrian coast and sells arms to Damascus, China has little commercial interest in shielding Assad from criticism, Seniora said.

Seniora said China had balked at U.N. condemnation of Assad because of concerns over potential criticism of its own domestic record, including in Tibet. But in the long term he said it was not in Beijing's interest to side with the Syrian leader.

"They have lots of investments and interests in the Arab world. They cannot continue taking such a position," he said.

Seniora said the confrontation inside Syria, which has killed thousands of people, had reached a point of no return because Assad's opponents would not stop until he was forced out. The authorities had waited too long to implement reforms, he added.

Still bearing the scars from their own 1975-1990 civil war, Lebanese politicians have been looking anxiously at the violence in neighboring Syria, which has pitted largely Sunni Muslim protesters against a president from the minority Alawite sect.

But despite tensions and public recriminations between Sunni leaders -- who largely support the uprising in Syria -- and the powerful Shiite group Hezbollah which backs Assad, Seniora said Lebanon's parties would seek to contain their differences.

"The stakes are too high. Those trying to capitalize on some difference between the Sunnis and Shiites - it is not going to bear fruit," he said.

Domestic divisions in Lebanon have traditionally been exploited by regional powers, with Iran supporting Hezbollah and Saudi Arabia backing the country's Sunni Muslim population.

Those regional rivalries are now being played out in Syria, where Tehran is backing Assad and Saudi Arabia declared last week it would support arming rebels seeking his overthrow.

"It is not in the interests of the Iranian regime to continue hammering on having Lebanon and Syria as their client countries," Seniora said.

"This is not a sustainable relationship and this will lead towards furthering the confrontation in the region."

Syrian artillery pounded rebel-held areas of Homs as President Bashar al-Assad's government announced that voters had overwhelmingly approved a new constitution in a referendum derided as a sham by his critics at home and abroad.

The outside world has proved powerless to halt the killing in Syria, where repression of initially peaceful protests has spawned an armed insurrection by army deserters and others.

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent did manage to enter the besieged Baba Amr district of Homs and evacuate three people on Monday, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said. Foreign reporters trapped in the area were not evacuated and the bodies of two journalists killed there had not been recovered, it said.

While foreign powers argued over whether to arm the rebels, the Syrian Interior Ministry on Monday said the reformed constitution, which could keep Assad in power until 2028, had received 89.4 percent approval from more than 8 million voters.

Syrian dissidents and Western leaders dismissed as a farce Sunday's vote, conducted in the midst of the country's bloodiest turmoil in decades, although Assad says the new constitution will lead to multi-party elections within three months.

Officials put national voter turnout at close to 60 percent, but diplomats who toured polling stations in Damascus saw only a handful of voters at each location. On the same day, at least 59 people were killed in violence around the country.

Assad says he is fighting foreign-backed "armed terrorist groups" and his main allies - Russia, China and Iran - fiercely oppose any outside intervention intended to add him to the list of Arab autocrats unseated by popular revolts in the past year.

But Qatar joined Saudi Arabia in advocating arming the Syrian rebels, given that Russia and China have twice used their vetoes to block any action by the U.N. Security Council.

"I think we should do whatever is necessary to help them, including giving them weapons to defend themselves," Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani said in Oslo.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé criticized the U.N. Security Council's "impotence" on Syria, shown by the Russian and Chinese vetoes, and accused the Syrian authorities of "massacres" and "odious crimes."

In a speech to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Juppé said the time was ripe for referring Syria to the International Criminal Court and warned Assad he would be brought to justice.

"The day will come when the Syrian civilian and military authorities, first among them President Assad himself, must respond before justice for their acts. In the face of such crimes, there can be no impunity," Juppé told the 47-member Geneva forum, which will hold an emergency debate on Syria on Tuesday.

Shells and rockets crashed into Sunni Muslim districts of Homs that have already endured weeks of bombardment as Assad's forces, led by officers from his minority Alawite sect, try to stamp out an almost year-long revolt against his 11-year rule.

The ICRC has been pursuing talks with the Syrian authorities and opposition forces for days to secure access to besieged neighborhoods such as Baba Amr, where local activists say hundreds of wounded need treatment and thousands of civilians are short of water, food and medical supplies.

ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan said a team from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent team had entered Baba Amr. "They have been able to evacuate three persons, including an aged woman, and a pregnant woman and her husband," he said.

The trio was believed to be Syrian and did not include four Western journalists trapped in Baba Amr, two of them wounded. A U.S. reporter and a French photographer were killed there on February 22.

International consternation has grown over the turmoil in Syria, but there is little appetite in the West for military action akin to the U.N.-backed NATO campaign in Libya.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Western powers hoped diplomacy could change minds: "We are putting pressure on the Russians first and the Chinese afterwards so that they lift their veto."

The European Union agreed more sanctions, targeting Syria's central bank and several cabinet ministers, curbing gold trading with state entities and banning cargo flights from the country.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reiterated Moscow's opposition to any military intervention in Syria.

"I very much hope the United States and other countries ... do not try to set a military scenario in motion in Syria without sanction from the U.N. Security Council," said Putin.

The new constitution drops a clause making Assad's Baath party the leader of state and society, allows political pluralism and limits a president to two seven-year terms.

But this restriction is not retrospective, implying that Assad, 46 and already in power since 2000, could serve two further terms after his current one expires in 2014.

The opposition dismisses the reforms on offer, saying that Assad, and his father who ruled for 30 years before him, have long paid only lip service to existing legal obligations.

Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, now the new U.N.-Arab League envoy on Syria, was holding separate talks in Geneva with Juppé and Iran's foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi on the sidelines of a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting.

Iran is Assad's closest ally. The main Shiite Muslim power, it has religious ties to Assad's Alawites and is confronting the Sunnis who dominate the Arab League - both the Sunni Islamists who have done well out of the past year's democratic changes and autocratic, Western-backed leaders in the Gulf and elsewhere.

Hamas has largely deserted its headquarters in the Syrian capital in recent weeks, in what has become an unofficial departure by the Palestinian movement.

The exodus reflects both the widely-held belief that the Assad regime is entering its dying days, and the proximity of Hamas to Islamist elements in the Syrian opposition.

Hamas was founded 24 years ago in the Gaza Strip by Palestinian members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood but, for most of its existence, its political headquarters have been in Damascus. Syria and its main ally, Iran, have been the movement's main backers and arms suppliers.

Officially, Hamas's political bureau is still in Syria, but according to various reports, it has been almost empty over the past couple of months, with senior leaders making only periodic visits.

It is still unclear where the main offices will relocate to and the departing members have so far traveled to a number of Arab countries including Lebanon, Qatar, Sudan and the Gaza Strip. Rumors of an organized move to Jordan or Egypt have so far proved unfounded.

The exit from Syria is not only due to Hamas's unease at being identified with President Bashar al-Assad, whose forces have massacred over 4,000 civilians in the last ten months, many of them in areas aligned with the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.

It is also a result of the new position of the Brotherhood in Egypt following this year's revolution, which has boosted Hamas's standing in Cairo. The new closeness between Hamas and the temporary Egyptian administration was a major factor in the Gilad Shalit prisoner deal.

President Assad's sole remaining regional ally, Iran, opposed Hamas's move and, according to Israeli intelligence sources, has drastically reduced its funding of Hamas's military wing in Gaza, transferring the bulk of its support to the more radical Islamic Jihad.