Russia and China have joined western powers in calling on Damascus to allow the UN’s humanitarian chief immediate access to the country as Syrian rebels retreated from the besieged Bab Amr district of Homs after more than three weeks of bombardment.

With one of the bloodiest episodes in the year-long uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime appearing to reach a turning point, a rare unanimous statement by the UN Security Council – which has been paralysed by Russian and Chinese resistance to pressure on the regime – expressed disappointment at Damascus’s refusal to allow a visit by Valerie Amos.

The Free Syrian Army, the loosely affiliated group of defected soldiers and other armed opponents of the regime, said in a declaration circulated on the internet that it had opted for a “tactical retreat” to spare thousands of civilians. It cited “worsening humanitarian conditions, lack of food and medicine and water, electricity and communication cuts as well as shortages in weapons”.

The UN Security Council rebuked Syria for not allowing UN humanitarian officials to visit the country, saying it “deplores the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation, in particular the growing number of affected civilians, the lack of safe access to adequate medical services, and food shortages” in places such as Homs and Hama. It called for humanitarian personnel to be given immediate access to affected populations.

The Obama administration said on Thursday that the situation in Syria was “horrific” and that the country risked becoming a failed state. Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state, said the Syrian regime had “intensified its vicious campaign of attacks against the Syrian people…. today’s reports from Homs are truly alarming.”

Mr Feltman added: “It’s important that the tipping point for the regime be reached quickly, because the longer the regime assaults the Syrian people, the greater the chances of all-out world in a failed state.” However, the Syrian military and security services appeared to be maintaining their cohesion, he said.

The Bab Amr rebels brigade, which called on the International Committee of the Red Cross to enter and evacuate all civilians, said: “The Assad army has destroyed most of the civilian homes up to now.”

The ICRC said the organisation had been given a “green light” by the government to go to the shell-blasted neighbourhood of Bab Amr with essential food and medical supplies on Friday.

Bab Amr has become a symbol of resistance to the regime, amid repeated military attacks to dislodge the rebels from opposition strongholds. Nearly a month ago, Mr Assad’s security forces began a campaign of intensive shelling of Homs’ opposition neighbourhoods, trapping thousands of civilians.

While some people are said to have left the neighbourhood, the FSA said about 4,000 remain in Bab Amr and refuse to leave their battered homes.

Wissam Tarif of the campaign group Avaaz said there were “massive casualties” in Bab Amr. Details were impossible to confirm because all communications with the area have been blocked.

Although the limited information from the ground indicated that the regime had reasserted itself with devastating force, the rebels’ statement insisted they would return, vowing: “Bab Amr will remain the eye and heart of this revolution until we gain full victory.”

It was not immediately clear on Thursday whether the rebels’ retreat was the result of a negotiated deal, as has occurred in other parts of the country after intense shelling by the regime.

A person close to the FSA said the rebels were seeking to spare the civilian population from what would have been a massacre but also to sustain their own ability to continue to fight.

“The battle would have been suicidal so the fighters have gone to areas near Homs and they can melt into the civilian population,” he said. “They stood up to the army for a month and they resisted but they needed to retreat for their own sake as well.”

French foreign minister Alain Juppé on Thursday night confirmed that Edith Bouvier and William Daniels, two French journalists trapped in Homs, had reached lebanon safely. Ms Bouvier suffered serious leg injuries in the bombardment last week that killed fellow journalists Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik.

Additional reporting by Hugh Carnegy

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