In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, waves to his supporters after he attended the prayer of Eid Al Adha, at the al-Nour Mosque in the northern town of Raqqa, Syria, on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2011. Syrians in the restive region of Homs performed special prayers for a major Muslim holiday to the sound of explosions and gunfire as government troops pushed forward their assault on the area, killing at least several people Sunday, residents and activists said. (AP Photo/SANA) EDITORIAL USE ONLY
(CBS/AP) -- Syrian forces moved into the besieged rebel-held district of Baba Amr in Homs, declaring it a "safe territory" after clearing it of "gunmen" after a nearly four-week-long military operation. The head of the Free Syrian Army, however, termed the rebels' withdrawal as a "tactical retreat" because of worsening humanitarian conditions, CBS News producer Ben Plesser reports.
"The district of Baba Amr is totally under full control. The Army has washed out the whole area and cleansed it from armed groups. The soldiers have been checking every single street, tunnel and house looking for arms and gunmen," a security source told CBS News on condition of anonymity.
"The army still has little job to do but I can assure you that Homs had returned to be a safe territory," he added, without getting into specifics.
A statement by the Baba Amr rebels brigade said the decision was made to spare some 4,000 civilian residents who insisted on staying in their homes.
Activists said that since the first week of February, government forces have showered parts of Homs, mainly Baba Amr, with daily barrages of mortars, tank shells and rockets. The violence has caused many to flee the city, while those who remain are trapped inside, including two Western journalists, Edith Bouvier and William Daniels.
The fate of the foreign journalists has drawn attention to Homs, which has emerged as a key battleground between government forces and those seeking to end the regime of President Bashar Assad. The journalists' status remained unclear amid Thursday's developments.
Earlier in the day, state-run TV said the army will "soon liberate and purify" Homs from terrorists. There were reports that shelling by Syrian forces targeted satellite Internet devices, preventing the opposition and activists from uploading video accounts on YouTube.
The opposition in Homs also reported a widespread signal interference that made it nearly impossible to use satellite telephones to get word out of Baba Amr.
Authorities had previously blocked land and mobile phone lines, but activists were able to communicate with the outside world with satellite phones.
Homs is about 12 miles northeast of the frontier with Lebanon, and cross-border smuggling has been key to the city's survival and to arming the rebels because of the links between Sunnis in northern Lebanon and the Sunni majority in Homs.
Burhan Ghalioun, head of the opposition Syrian National Council, told a news conference in Paris that rebels have relocated from some areas but said the resistance in Baba Amr "is still strong." It was not immediately clear what escape route the rebels used.
Ghalioun laid out the plans for a military council to organize and unify all armed resistance to Assad's regime.
The Paris-based leadership of the Syrian National Council said its plan was coordinated with the most potent armed opposition force — the Free Syrian Army — made up mainly of army defectors.
"The revolution started peacefully and kept up its peaceful nature for months, but the reality today is different and the SNC must shoulder its responsibilities in the face of this new reality," Ghalioun told reporters in Paris, saying any weapons flowing into the country should go through the council.
Still he tried to play down the risks of all-out civil war between the regime and the opposition.
"We want to control the use of weapons so that there won't be a civil war," he said. "Our aim is to help avoid civil war."
To comment, the following rules must be followed:
If you believe a comment violates the above rules, please use the Flagging Tool to alert a Moderator.
Flagging does not guarantee removal.
Decisions to suspend or unsuspend accounts are made by Station Moderators.
Links require admin approval before posting.
Questions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please provide detailed information.