Demonstrators gather during a protest against Syria’s President Bashar Al Assad’s regime after Friday prayers in Yabroud near Damascus on Friday. Image Credit: AP

Beirut: Syrian forces on Saturday pounded the battered city of Homs and blocked aid reaching civilians stranded for weeks without food and fuel in the former rebel stronghold, activists and aid workers said.

The renewed government assault came a day after UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he had received "grisly reports" that President Bashar Al Assad's troops were executing, imprisoning and torturing people in Syria's third largest city.

"In an act of pure revenge, [Al] Assad's army has been firing mortar rounds and machine guns since this morning at Jobar," said the Syrian Network for Human Rights, referring to a neighbourhood adjacent to Baba Amr, the Homs district from which Free Syrian Army rebels pulled out last week after almost a month of bombardment.

"We have no immediate reports of casualties because of the difficulty of communications," it said in a statement.

Concern was mounting for civilians in freezing conditions in battered Baba Amr, where International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) trucks were still blocked from entering.

"The ICRC and Syrian Red Crescent are not yet in Baba Amr today. We are still in negotiations with authorities in order to enter Baba Amr. It is important that we enter today," ICRC spokesman Hesham Hassan told Reuters in Geneva.

Unsafe conditions

A Damascus-based ICRC spokesman said Syrian authorities had given the convoy permission to enter, but that government forces on the ground had stopped the trucks because of what they said were unsafe conditions.

"There has been fighting there for at least a month. The situation cannot be good. They will need food, it's cold, they will need blankets. And there are injured there that need to be evacuated immediately," Saleh Dabbakeh told Reuters.

Anti-government activists said they feared troops were keeping out the ICRC to prevent aid workers witnessing a massacre of alleged rebels in Baba Amr which had become a symbol of a year-long uprising against Al Assad.

UN chief Ban explicitly blamed Damascus for the fate of civilians, in some of his toughest criticism so far.

"The brutal fighting has trapped civilians in their homes, without food, heat or electricity or medical care; without any chance of evacuating the wounded or burying the dead. People have been reduced to melting snow for drinking water," he said.

"This atrocious assault is all the more appalling for having been waged by the government itself, systematically attacking its own people."

Syria's UN ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, said Ban's remarks included "extremely virulent rhetoric which confines itself to slandering a government based on reports, opinions or hearsay".

Syrian state news agency Sana reported that a suicide car bomber in the town of Daraa, near the border with Jordan, had killed two people and wounded 20 others.

Residents said seven people had been killed and anti-Al Assad activists denied the attack was a suicide bombing.

Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said anti-Al Assad fighters had earlier yesterday killed six soldiers and wounded nine in the town of Al Herak, south of Daraa.

A fighter with the rebels, whose ranks include defectors from Al Assad's army, said they were planning their next steps after losing Baba Amr.

"Our morale, praise God, is high. We do not say we are sorry when someone is martyred, we all hope for this, and for the fall of the regime," said the rebel fighter who declined to be named.

Major setback

The rebel withdrawal was seen as a major setback for the armed revolt, that began with largely peaceful protests inspired by the "Arab Spring", but escalated amid a bloody government crackdown.

The Syrian government yesterday said Baba Amr was now "rid of terrorists".

"The authorities restored security and safety to Baba Amr ... ridding it of members of armed terrorist groups who ran amok in it and committed murder and vandalism, turning the locals' lives into a living hell," Sana said.

Wounded British photographer Paul Conroy, who escaped Homs earlier this week, on Friday said he had witnessed Syrian troops carrying out a massacre in heavily-shelled Baba Amr.