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SATURDAY, 19 APR 2014
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Civilians evacuated from Syria's besieged Homs
Agence France Presse
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HOMS, Syria: Dozens of civilians were evacuated from rebel-held areas of the Syrian city of Homs on Friday under a humanitarian truce after having survived more than 600 days under army siege.

The government in Damascus, meanwhile, confirmed it will join a new round of peace talks next week.

Red Crescent volunteers aided frail-looking old men wrapped in blankets board a bus, as a woman on a stretcher awaited her turn.

Large areas of Syria's third city, dubbed "the capital of the revolution" against President Bashar al-Assad, have been reduced to rubble by fighting between rebels and government forces.

The UN resident coordinator in Syria, Yaacub El Hillo, said that by the afternoon more than 80 civilians had been evacuated, according to state television.

"More than 80 women, children and elderly men have successfully left the Old City of Homs, and we will continue to work on this with the Syrian government," said El Hillo, according to the broadcaster.

State television charged that the civilians had been held as "human shields" by "terrorist groups" -- the term authorities use to describe rebels.

An AFP correspondent said some 12 civilians came out on the first bus from the rebel enclave.

The evacuation is part of a deal brokered by the UN between the two sides after months of negotiations that will also see desperately needed aid delivered during a "humanitarian pause" in fighting.

Barazi said the first consignment of food and medicines will not go in until Saturday.

Activists frequently report severe food and medical shortages, with some 3,000 people -- including 1,200 women, children, and elderly people -- trapped there, surviving on little more than olives and grass.

Activist Yazan told AFP via the Internet that those leaving "had mixed feelings". They were happy to escape but worried about "what comes next" and feared being detained.

Barazi said those allowed out were children under 15, men over 55 and women, calling the UN-supervised operation a "success".

There were initial "difficulties" for civilians trying to get out of the rebel-held Old City "but thanks be to God they were able to leave," he said.

UN World Food Programme staffers in blue vests were present during the evacuation, and a vehicle marked with the logo of UN refugee agency, UNHCR, was parked nearby.

The government agreed to observe a "humanitarian pause" and opposition activists in Homs said the rebels had agreed to a four-day ceasefire.

The army launched a string of huge offensives to recapture rebel areas in the Old City in early 2012, with near-daily bombardments killing thousands.

Attacks in February 2012 also claimed the lives of American war reporter Mary Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik.

Assad's forces imposed the blockade in June 2012 after recapturing most of Homs, pushing the rebels into a small enclave in its centre.

A new advance last summer, after pro-government forces backed by Shiite fighters from Lebanon's Hezbollah movement recaptured the town of Qusayr, cut off the rebels' supply route.

The plight of the trapped civilians was on the agenda of peace talks between the government and the opposition in Switzerland last month, that broke up without any agreement on access for relief supplies.

The second round of peace talks due to open Monday had been uncertain, with the government having failed to announce whether it would attend.

But Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad confirmed on Friday that a government delegation will travel to Geneva for more talks with the opposition.

"It has been decided that the delegation of the Syrian republic will take part in the second round of negotiations in Geneva," state news agency SANA quoted him as saying.

In the first round, the two sides failed to agree on a single point despite persistent pressure from UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, and co-sponsors Russia and the United States.

On Tuesday, opposition Syrian National Coalition chief Ahmad Jarba met Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of Russia, a key Damascus ally, in Moscow.

For Assad's foes, peace talks must focus on a transition, but the government insists his rule is not up for discussion.

 
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Story Summary
Dozens of civilians were evacuated from rebel-held areas of the Syrian city of Homs on Friday under a humanitarian truce after having survived more than 600 days under army siege.

The government in Damascus, meanwhile, confirmed it will join a new round of peace talks next week.

The UN resident coordinator in Syria, Yaacub El Hillo, said that by the afternoon more than 80 civilians had been evacuated, according to state television.

An AFP correspondent said some 12 civilians came out on the first bus from the rebel enclave.

The government agreed to observe a "humanitarian pause" and opposition activists in Homs said the rebels had agreed to a four-day ceasefire.

The second round of peace talks due to open Monday had been uncertain, with the government having failed to announce whether it would attend.
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