By Nicholas Vinocur
PARIS, March 2 (Reuters) - For two weeks French surgeon Jacques Bares watched civilians die in a candle-lit operating room from wounds which would have been easily treatable in peacetime, while mortar rounds rained down on the besieged Syrian city of Homs.
Beres, co-founder of Doctors Without Borders, worked alongside Syrian surgeons in a makeshift hospital near the Baba Amro neighbourhood where journalists Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik were killed by shellfire on Feb. 22.
Rebels withdrew from the district on Thursday after being pounded by shell and mortar fire for weeks. An official at Syria's foreign ministry said the army had "cleansed Baba Amro of the foreign-backed armed groups of terrorists."
After his return to Paris, Beres told journalists that living conditions inside Syria's third-largest city were "catastrophic" due to unrelenting mortar fire which crushed buildings and left doctors operating without electricity.
Working from a building near Baba Amro, the neighbourhood where the two journalists were killed and the focus of the most intensive shelling, Beres said he had stayed indoors to avoid being targeted or arrested as an American spy.
"If I had been in that neighbourhood (Baba Amro) I may well have ended up like Colvin," he said. "You cannot give people medical treatment in that neighbourhood, it's unbearable."
Beres, who returned to France last Friday, said he travelled to Homs independently and then sought the sponsorship of a French Muslim umbrella group, as Doctors Without Borders does not normally condone its members entering countries illegally.
"It was important to have that card (from the group), so at least I had the backing of a Muslim group and would not be immediately taken for an American spy," he said.
Once inside Homs, the 71-year-old got to work with local doctors in an apartment building. Electricity from a diesel generator flowed intermittently, leaving surgeons to work by candelight when fuel ran out. Nights were cold.
Beres said most injured people admitted to his ward were civilians with puncture wounds from heavy mortar rounds which break into fragments upon impact. Life expectancy for people hit in the head or chest was short and more than one patient who could normally have been saved died on his operating table.
The ward also admitted fighters from the rebel Free Syrian Army, though they were a minority, Beres said. He had met no foreign fighters in Homs.
The United Nations says Syrian security forces have killed more than 7,500 civilians since the revolt began last March. Syria's government said in December that "armed terrorists" had killed more than 2,000 soldiers and police during the unrest.
"I have every reason to believe the current (official) death toll is lower than the reality," Beres said. "There are those whose bodies are unrecognisable, those which are hidden under rubble."
Asked if conditions in Homs reminded him of any other conflict Beres, who has seen many, said: "Suffering is universal. A mother who's lost a child shows pain all around the world, though in different ways."
But conditions in Homs did recall the misery of Grozny, the capital city of the Chechen Republic in Russia, when it was being pounded by Russian forces at the height of the second Chechen War in the late 1990s, he said.
"The size of the cities is similar, there is a mix of urban and rural, and very few cellars in which to take cover because Muslim people don't need to put their wine there," he said.
"And then there is the intensity of the repression: relentless," he added. (Reporting By Nicholas Vinocur; Editing by Tim Pearce)