BEIRUT/UNITED NATIONS: The United Nations Thursday welcomed reports that an agreement had been reached to allow the evacuation of civilians from the besieged Syrian city of Homs and for aid to be delivered, a U.N. spokesman said.
The possible breakthrough came as the U.N. Security Council urged the Syrian authorities to speed up the removal of the regime’s most harmful chemical weapons agents from the country after it missed several deadlines.
The U.N. made clear that it was not a party to the deal for Homs and while it was ready to send in aid, it did not yet have the go-ahead from the government and opposition sides in Syria’s war to move on the reported agreement.
“The United Nations and humanitarian partners had prepositioned food, medical and other basic supplies on the outskirts of Homs ready for immediate delivery as soon as the green light was given by the parties for safe passage,” U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said in a statement.
Syria earlier said it had reached a deal to allow “innocent” civilians to leave the rebel-held Old City of Homs, potentially the first positive result after deadlocked peace talks in Switzerland last week.
The siege of the Old City has gone on for over a year, and activists say 2,500 people are trapped inside the area struggling with hunger and malnourishment. They represent only a small fraction of besieged Syrians across the country in desperate need of aid.
“The agreement will allow innocent civilians surrounded in the neighborhoods of Old Homs – among them women and children, the wounded and the elderly – an opportunity to leave as soon as the necessary arrangements, in addition to offering them humanitarian aid,” said a Syrian Foreign Ministry statement, cited on Syria TV.
“It will also allow in aid to civilians who choose to stay inside the Old City.”
Delegates from Syria’s warring sides met face to face for the first time at the “Geneva II” peace conference last week and were unable to agree anything, even a humanitarian deal for Homs that diplomats had hoped could be a relatively easy first step.
A second round of talks is scheduled for next week.
The government statement did not elaborate on who would be considered “innocent.”
Rebels have rejected similar offers to evacuate women and children in the past because of fear for the fate of any men left behind. Dozens of men disappeared after a similar deal reached in Moadamieh, a suburb west of Damascus.
RIA news agency from Assad’s ally Russia quoted an unnamed official at Syria’s Defense Ministry saying rebel fighters were keeping civilians in the area as human shields.
“As for civilians, we are not holding them up or refusing them humanitarian aid but the terrorists are the problem,” it quoted the source as saying. “Terrorists are claiming that there are only civilians in the Old City who need humanitarian aid. In fact, it’s terrorists who are mainly there, including foreign militants, using small groups of civilians held as hostages.”
The encouraging statements by the U.N. coincided with the Security Council’s call on the government to “accelerate” the removal of chemical weapons agents after several interim deadlines were not met.
The Syrian government missed a Dec. 31 deadline to remove the most dangerous chemicals in its stockpile from the war-torn country and Wednesday’s deadline to give up its entire stockpile of chemical weapons. The Assad regime has cited security concerns and the lack of some equipment but says it remains fully committed to the process. A council statement issued Thursday after a briefing by Sigrid Kaag, head of the mission charged with destroying Syria’s chemical weapons, called on Syria “to expedite actions to meet its obligation to transport in a systematic and sufficiently accelerated manner all relevant chemicals” to the port of Latakia for removal.
The council noted that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the joint U.N.-Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons mission overseeing the destruction of Syria’s stockpile have said the government “has sufficient material and equipment to carry out multiple ground movements to ensure the expeditious removal of chemical weapons.”
U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power accused the Syrian government of “foot-dragging” and demanded that President Bashar Assad’s government establish a plan to quickly move the chemical weapons and their precursors out of the country.
By delaying, she said, the regime is increasing the cost to nations involved in the removal and is “also encouraging heightened risks that these weapons will be used again by regime elements or will fall into the hands of terrorists.”
But Kaag told reporters she didn’t think there had been deliberate stalling by Syria. She said there is ongoing destruction of less harmful chemicals taking place in Syria and continuing preparations for the removal of more harmful agents.
“The message I think is clear that there is an expectation of pace, volume and predictability” in removing all chemical weapons agents from Syria, Kaag said.
Ban told a news conference at the Winter Olympics site in Sochi, Russia that despite the delays he still believes a deadline of destroying Syria’s entire chemical weapons program by June 30 “can be done with the support of the Syrian government.”