Syrian rebels say they are making a “tactical retreat” from the besieged district of Baba Amr in Homs because of worsening humanitarian conditions.
The decision was made to spare some 4,000 civilian residents who insisted on staying in their homes, says a statement by the Baba Amr rebels brigade.
The rebels warned government troops against carrying out revenge attacks targeting civilians.
They said any such action will “cost the regime dearly”.
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”.
The government has vowed to “cleanse” Baba Amr from “gunmen”.
Activists said government forces have cut off communications to Baba Amr, jamming satellite phone signals as they mass for an apparent ground assault.
The Baba Amr neighbourhood in Homs has been under siege for a month, with hundreds killed in shelling.
Authorities had previously blocked land and mobile phone lines, but activists were able to communicate with the outside world with satellite phones.
The activist Revolutionary Council of Homs, based elsewhere in the city, said it could no longer reach anyone inside the district. All satellite signals were jammed, it said.
In Paris, Ghalioun said the Syrian National Council has formed a military council to organise and unify all armed resistance to President Bashar Assad’s regime.
The leadership said its plan was co-ordinated with the most powerful 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,” said Ghalioun.
He said any weapons flowing into the country should go through the council.
Still he tried to play down the risks of all-out warfare.
“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.”
The SNC has called for arming rebels in the past, but this was the first time it sought to organise the fighters under one umbrella.
The move came as the United Nations’ human rights body condemned Syria for its “widespread and systematic violations” against civilians in the crackdown on opposition groups.
The International Committee of the Red Cross says heavy fighting is preventing aid workers from reaching the wounded and sick in parts of Homs.
The Red Cross describes the humanitarian situation in Homs as “very worrying” and says it has only been able to enter Baba Amr twice in seven days.
It says residents of al-Zabadani around 31 miles north-west of Damascus have been leaving the city for Bludan and Madaya near the Lebanese border in search of safety.