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Syria's Homs ravaged, UN warns of food shortages

Syrian state forces backed by Hezbollah have pummeled rebel-held areas around Homs for a seventh day. The United Nations says civilians remain trapped, and food supplies for Syria as a whole are desperately short.

In this citizen journalism image provided by Lens Young Homsi, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows a Syrian standing in the rubble of a destroyed buildings from Syrian forces shelling, in the al-Hamidiyyeh neighborhood of Homs province, Syria, Thursday, June 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Lens Young Homsi)

Syrien Homs

The UN said up to 4,000 civilians were trapped in Syria's central city of Homs on Friday during further bombardments from forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Video footage uploaded by activist groups showed destroyed buildings on fire and fighters firing rocket-propelled grenades during street-by-street battles.

Homs is the focus of a push by Assad's forces to complete the seizure of a swathe of territory between Damascus and Syria's Mediterranean coast.

A spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Rupert Colville, said the Khalidiyeh neighborhood of Homs was shelled heavily early on Friday.

"Although the total number of casualties remains unknown, the number of civilians currently trapped due [to] the heavy fighting in and around Homs is believed to be between 2,500 and 4,000 people," said Colville.

Residents quoted by the news agency Reuters said fighters of Hezbollah, a Shiite group funded by Iran and based in Lebanon, together with pro-Assad militias were involved in the battle around Homs.

Outside Homs, Assad's forces had fired on the rebel stronghold of al-Hosn, an ancient crusader fortress recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site, they said. Surrounding forest had been set on fire, removing cover to rebels trying to bring in supplies.

In a further sign that Syria's war could destabilize Lebanon, fugitive Lebanese Sunni cleric Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir staged a rally in Sidon in support of Syria's mainly Sunni Muslim opposition.

Al-Assir, who has repeatedly criticized Hezbollah for siding with Assad's regime, has been elusive since the Lebanese army stormed his Sidon headquarters last month, accusing his followers of attacking the army.

Appeal from FAO und WFP

Two other UN agencies, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Program (WFP), appealed on Friday for more funds to help feed 4 million Syrians.

They have been unable to produce or buy sufficient foodstuffs since the outbreak of Syria's civil war in early 2011, the agencies said. Fighting had displaced residents from their cropping areas and led to hikes in fuel prices for machinery.

The FAO said for fertilizer and seeds alone, $42 million (32 million euros) was needed by Syrian farmers to ensure that planting was completed by October.

The WFP said more than $27 million was needed each week to ensure nutrition for persons displaced by warfare inside Syria and Syrian refugees sheltering in neighboring countries.

Only 48 percent of the cost of supplying them from July until September was covered by contributions, the WFP said.

Grünhelme members free

Germany's foreign ministry announced on Friday that two German members of the Grünhelme [Green Helmet] aid organization were flying back to Germany.

The pair went missing in the town of Harem in the northern Syrian district of Idlib on May 14, prompting speculation that they had been kidnapped.

The fate of a third member, a 72-year-old engineer, was still unknown.

The Grünhelme organization specializes in reconstructing schools and medical facilities in crisis regions.

ipj/mz (AP, AFP, epd, kna, dpa, Reuters)