Middle East

Syria, UN in Homs aid deal as Aleppo fighting hots up

DAMASCUS: Syria and the UN have struck a deal for aiding besieged areas of Homs, officials said Thursday, as more than 250 people have reportedly died in six days of barrel-bomb attacks on Aleppo.

Also in northern Syria, clashes between rebels and troops raged inside Aleppo's central prison, after Islamist fighters assaulted it and freed hundreds of prisoners.

A week after the situation in besieged districts of Homs was discussed at peace talks in Geneva, state news agency SANA said an agreement has been struck to allow aid in and safe passage out for civilians.

"Homs Governor Talal al-Barazi and UN resident coordinator Yaacoub El Hillo have reached an agreement securing the exit of innocent civilians from the Old City and the entrance of humanitarian assistance for civilians who choose to stay," SANA said.

The UN confirmed that there would be a "humanitarian pause," said spokesman Farhan Haq, citing UN Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Valerie Amos.

The deal clears the way for delivering lifesaving supplies for about 2,500 trapped civilians, where activists saying people have been surviving on little more than olives for weeks.

SANA said "the relevant Syrian authorities will implement the deal by providing the necessary humanitarian assistance, including food, shelter and medical aid for innocent civilians who leave" the besieged districts.

"Food, medicine and other assistance will be sent in for civilians who choose to stay," it added.

Rebel-held districts there have also come under nearly daily shelling since the army blockaded them in June 2012.

Abu Ziad, an activist one such district, told AFP by Internet that "the families are ready to leave."

Among the besieged are at least 1,200 women, children and elderly people, the Britain-based Observatory says.

Activists have highlighted the plight of new mothers trapped in the siege as being unable to breastfeed their infants as a result of their own malnutrition.

In Aleppo, meanwhile, the Observatory said more than 250 people have been killed by regime barrel bomb attacks, as a coalition of rebels announced a new military operation in the province.

The Islamic Front, which groups tens of thousands of rebels, and the Al-Qaeda franchise Al-Nusra Front announced an operation dubbed "Truthful Promise Approaches," a reference to a passage in the Koran.

The announcement comes as the army seeks to take territory in the rebel-held eastern part of Aleppo city.

That ground campaign has been accompanied by six consecutive days of aerial attacks by barrel bombs dropped from helicopters.

These attacks have killed at least 257 people, including 76 children, and wounded hundreds more since Saturday, the Observatory said.

Widely condemned as indiscriminate, the bombing has sparked a mass exodus from the worst-hit neighbourhoods in the east of the city.

Once the country's economic hub, Aleppo has been divided since a major rebel offensive in mid-2012.

Syria chemical weapon destruction needs speeding up

Just outside the city, rebels and jihadists assaulted the central prison, freeing hundreds of detainees, the Observatory said.

But Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said the army took back the initiative after Ahrar al-Sham -- part of the Islamic Front and Al-Nusra took over large parts of the sprawling complex.

An Ahrar al-Sham fighter told AFP clashes were ongoing, while state television denied any losses.

The assault began with a suicide attack carried out by an Al-Nusra fighter at the prison's main entrance.

Meanwhile, the UN Security Council heard that Syria must step up the pace to meet deadlines in destroying its chemical arsenal.

Diplomats quoted Sigrid Kaag, the operation's coordinator, as warning the council that "the intermediate timeline objectives have not been met. Syria is at critical juncture."

"Delay is not insurmountable," she added. "But with deadline on the horizon, it is essential that Syria accelerates. Time for action is now."

President Bashar al-Assad has pledged to eliminate Syria's entire chemical weapons arsenal by the end of June or face sanctions, including the possible use of force.

Less than five percent of the stockpile has been removed from Syria, according to Washington, and Damascus has just missed another key deadline.

Western powers have expressed concern at the slow pace of the handover, fearing Assad is playing for time, but key ally Russia called for calm.

"We are confident this project is going to be accomplished in a timely manner and these chemicals are going to be destroyed," Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said in New York.

But British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said "we feel the time for excuses has run out."





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