Middle East

Activists in Syria's Homs fear arrest if they leave

Men with amputated legs wait to be evacuated from a besieged area of Homs February 12, 2014. (REUTERS/Yazan Homsy)

BEIRUT: Syrian activists holed up in besieged districts of Homs say they fear being arrested if they leave after hundreds of men were detained by authorities as they exited the city.

"There are some 60 activists in the besieged areas. Some of them want to leave, but will only do so if there are guarantees for their safety," said Yazan, who withheld his full name for fear of retribution.

"Our fate (as besieged opponents) is unknown. Activists who want to leave and go to a safe place need to be given guarantees," he told AFP via the Internet.

A UN-supervised operation to distribute aid and evacuate civilians from a handful of rebel neighbourhoods in the heart of Syria's third city began on Friday.

A deal between rebels and the regime allowing the evacuation made no mention of whether military-age men could leave, and more than 300 male evacuees aged 15 to 55 were detained by authorities while exiting Homs.

The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR said Tuesday that 336 of them have been taken to a UN-supervised site for questioning by the authorities.

Homs Governor Talal al-Barazi said 111 had been released, though there was no immediate confirmation from the UN, who had earlier said 42 had been set free.

But activist Abu Bilal says he fears those released will eventually be re-arrested.

"They have been given identity papers instead of their ID cards. I fear that they will be arrested again once the UN operation is over," said Abu Bilal, who is in touch with some of the evacuees.

"People are free to leave, but what they are doing is surrendering themselves to the regime. I would rather stay here and eat herbs than hand myself in."

An estimated 3,000 people have been trapped in rebel-held districts under army siege in Homs's Old City for more than 18 months.

Once dubbed "the capital of the revolution," Homs attracted activists from all over the country.

For months, those who remain in the rebel neighbourhoods have been reduced to eating olives and herbs to survive as food supplies dwindled.

Syria's revolt began as a peaceful movement for political change, but morphed into an armed insurgency after President Bashar al-Assad's regime unleashed a brutal crackdown against dissent.

The authorities have systematically blamed all violence in Syria on "terrorists," a term it uses to brand both rebels and peaceful opponents.





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