Middle East

83 civilians evacuated from Syria's long-besieged Homs

A man waves behind the window of a bus on February 7, 2014, during the evacuation of civilians from the rebel-held areas of the Syrian city of Homs. (AFP PHOTO / STR)

HOMS, Syria: More than 80 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 launch of the operation was to be followed on Saturday by a delivery of aid.

"UN teams have pre-positioned food, medical and other basic supplies for immediate delivery as soon as the first group of civilians are out and we hope to send this aid on Saturday morning," said the UN humanitarian coordinator in Syria, Yacoub El Hillo.

"This has been a lengthy negotiation process and we commend all involved for reaching this milestone today," Hillo, who oversaw the launch, said in a statement.

The Homs 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.

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

In an amateur video filmed by activists in the nearby Waar area to which they were evacuated, one man smiled as he embraced his son, reunited for the first time in more than 18 months.

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 United Nations said 83 civilians were evacuated under a three-day "humanitarian pause."

"The people who were able to leave were women, children and the elderly," said UN spokesman Farhan Haq.

"They were then delivered to the places of their choice escorted by UN and Syrian Red Crescent staff," he said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said five of those evacuated were children, while 17 were women.

An AFP correspondent saw some 12 civilians come out on the first bus from the rebel enclave.

Abul Hareth al-Khalidi, a cleric and spokesman for the besieged civilian population, said the evacuation of civilians will continue Sunday.

"On Sunday, we plan for many women and children to leave," he told AFP via the Internet.

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

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

'Humanitarian pause' in bloody war 

UN World Food Programme staffers in blue vests attended the evacuation, and a vehicle with the logo of the 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 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.

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

In an open letter published in several newspapers Friday, global political, business and human rights leaders urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to push for an "Olympic truce" in Syria during the Sochi Games.

On Friday, despite the "pause" in Homs city's besieged areas, army tanks and warplanes continued to pound other rebel areas in the countryside of Homs. 

Damascus to join new talks 

A second round of Geneva 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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