BEIRUT: Dozens of children, women and elderly people on wheelchairs were evacuated Friday from battleground neighborhoods of the Syrian city of Homs, after a year and a half under siege.
The deal struck between the government and the opposition, that also includes a three-day cease-fire allowing aid convoys to enter, is the first concrete result of talks launched two weeks ago to try to end the country’s civil war.
The rare truce in Homs may help build some confidence ahead of a second round of peace talks between the opposition and the government of President Bashar Assad, scheduled to begin in Geneva next week.
By nightfall, 83 civilians were brought out of the city, many of them appearing frail and exhausted.
U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi had pushed for aid for the estimated 2,500 civilians trapped in the ancient, rebel-held quarters of the city known as Old Homs as confidence-building measures during the first face-to-face meetings in Geneva last month.
The talks were adjourned until Feb. 10 with no tangible progress reached, as the Syrian government accused the opposition of capitalizing on human suffering in Homs to score points with the international community.
Homs, one of the first areas to rise up against Bashar Assad in 2011, has been particularly hard hit. Over the past year, the government has regained control over much of the city, except for a few neighborhoods in the historic center, where rebels are holed up.
The extent of the evacuation is not clear, and officials have not said how many civilians total will leave. Earlier, Syrian TV had said 200 were expected to leave Friday and dozens more in the following days. The evacuation excludes men between the ages of 15 and 55, seen as likely fighters, Homs governor Talal Barrazi told Syrian state TV.
The WFP said it had trucks ready to take a month’s supply of food Saturday to an estimated 2,500 people trapped in the rebel-held heart of the city. “There are signs of malnutrition, for some of them it is very obvious,” WFP spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said.”Some said they have not eaten bread for five months.
U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said that while the operation is indeed a breakthrough, many civilians, sick and wounded remain in the Old City of Homs, U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said at U.N. headquarters in New York.
Haq added: “We understand that for the most part the operation went smoothly, but there were isolated reports of gunfire heard during the day ... We’ll try to evacuate more civilians and deliver aid in the next few days.”
The evacuees will be allowed to go wherever they want, Homs’ governor said, adding that a shelter has been prepared, capable of taking up to 400 people with nowhere else to go.
“I tell those who left today that soon we will celebrate with them by returning them to their homes,” he said, suggesting the government plans to recapture areas under rebel control.
Syrian TV showed elderly men, some wrapped in blue blankets, arriving at the front line separating government and opposition-held territory in Homs, assisted by Syrian Red Crescent paramedics.
They were searched, then transported in buses to a nearby shelter where they were given water and food. There were differing reports about where the evacuees were headed. Emergency workers and activists said they were being taken to Al-Waer – a neighborhood on the northwestern edge of Homs where many of the city’s Sunni population have already fled.
“We are very concerned that some of the people who will arrive in Al-Waer today will be arrested by the regime later,” activist Hasan Abuzain said by Skype.
“Last night the regime shelled the Old City and this morning it shelled Al-Waer, the very place we are sending these people to for safety.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry said the evacuation was the result of “difficult discussions over many days” that also led to a three-day cease-fire beginning Thursday.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Thursday said the evacuation “is not a substitute for the safe, regular and unfettered delivery of humanitarian assistance to those in need.”
“Humanitarian access should not be a political bargaining chip.”
The deal took much longer than diplomats expected, boding ill for the future of the peace talks, which the opposition says must focus on political transition which world powers called for after a June 2012, meeting in Geneva.
The government says the priority is to end and says political transition, which it rejects, is only part of the agenda.
State news agency SANA cited Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad Friday confirming the government would attend the second round of talks and demand a discussion “article by article” of the 2012 Geneva Communique.