BEIRUT: Aid officials rushed to evacuate more women, children and elderly from rebel-held areas that have been blockaded by regime troops for over a year in Homs after a U.N.-brokered cease-fire in Syria’s third-largest city was renewed for three more days Monday.
The truce, which began Friday, has been shaken by continued shelling and shooting that prevented some residents from escaping and limited the amount of food aid officials have been able to deliver into the besieged neighborhoods.
U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos sharply criticized the two sides, saying U.N. and Syrian Red Crescent workers were “deliberately targeted.”
The Red Crescent said 450 more people had been evacuated Monday, taking the total to leave the city after more than a year under government siege to around 1,100.
The shaky cease-fire further rattled peace talks that entered their second round Monday in Geneva – and which quickly became mired in recriminations between President Bashar Assad’s government and the opposition in exile.
The two sides’ first face-to-face meetings adjourned 10 days ago, having achieved little. This time, the two appeared even further apart, with no immediate plans to even sit at the same table. U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi was holding separate talks with each side.
A letter from Brahimi given to the delegates over the weekend said the new round of talks aimed to tackle the issues of stopping violence, setting up a transitional governing body, and plans for national institutions and reconciliation.
It included a plea: “Will the two sides ... contribute even at a minimum, toward lessening the manifestations of violence, stopping the use of certain weapons and reaching cease-fires in some areas, even for a short period?”
The opposition insists the aim of the talks is to agree on a transitional governing body that would replace Assad.
But Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said the issue of Assad stepping down was not on the agenda. “Please tell those who dream of wasting our time here in such a discussion to stop it,” he told a reporter.The government side says combating “terrorism” – its catchall term for the revolt – should be the talk’s first priority.
In a further bad sign Monday, Brahimi canceled a news conference.
Representatives of fighters on the ground joined the delegation for the first time, a senior opposition member said Monday, but they did not include the Islamic Front alliance, the biggest faction fighting Assad’s forces.
Powerful Islamist groups have denounced the opposition team, made up mainly of political exiles, as traitors, undermining prospects of lasting peace.
One Middle East diplomat said Brahimi should avoid getting bogged down in detail, arguing that had played into Assad’s hands in the first round of talks over Homs.
“The best way to proceed is for Brahimi to form committees to deal with cease-fires and the humanitarian issues while keeping the two delegations focused on the big political question,” the diplomat said.
Attempts to draw up a draft Security Council resolution to increase access for humanitarian aid suffered a setback in New York when Russia and China failed to attend negotiations, in a rebuff to the United States, Britain and France.
A Western diplomat, meanwhile, said the government was showing little sign of commitment to the peace talks. “ Homs is not encouraging. They [the government] are not making a colossal effort.”
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said the government was adopting a “very, very constructive approach.”
Opposition delegates said they had handed Brahimi their view of what a transitional government should look like and submitted witness statements they said showed the army had fired at the Homs aid convoy. The government blames the rebels.
Many of those evacuated from Homs since Friday “were traumatized and weak,” Amos said in a statement.
They reported “terrible conditions at the field hospital in the Old City, where the equipment is basic, there are no medicines and people are in urgent need of medical attention,” she said.
Amos said the truce had been extended for three days. The original truce ran from Friday to Sunday, but the continued shelling and shooting between the two sides severely limited efforts. Eleven people were killed.
Over the weekend, some women and elderly tried to leave but were unable to make their way through checkpoints to evacuation buses, according to Khaled Erksoussi, the head of operations of the Syrian Red Crescent.
He said some food aid was brought into the areas over the weekend – “but not the quantity we had hoped for” – and none made it in Monday.
Residents rushed through gunfire Sunday to reach U.N. vehicles carrying food that did make it in.
Then they fought over the oil, sugar and other supplies, according to one activist in Homs who uses the nickname Eman al-Homsy for security reasons. “They didn’t care about death; the hunger was killing them,” Eman said.