DAMASCUS: Western countries Thursday warned Syria over the fate of males detained during the evacuation from rebel-held areas of Homs, as hopes rose that a humanitarian operation will resume.
Homs governor Talal al-Barazi promised that “young men aged between 16 and 54 will be freed,” without specifying how many would be released.
Barazi said 390 men of weapons-bearing age had been detained after being evacuated from rebel-held districts, during a humanitarian operation for Homs districts under siege since June 2012 that began last Friday.
Barazi said 181 have already been freed, including 70 Thursday.
“They can go wherever they want, but not to Waar, which is a scene of fighting and where armed men [rebels] have taken up positions,” he said.
But according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Homs-based activist Yazan, only a small number have been released.
Most of the others are still holed up in the Andalus school, where the security services and the United Nations are present.
Some of the detained, the Observatory added, have been transferred to military intelligence for questioning.
Activists say men still in the siege – including some 200 injured – fear indefinite detention or even kidnapping by paramilitary groups should they leave the enclaves.
According to Yazan, many want to be transferred to the neighborhood of Waar, where they have relatives and where rebels have a strong presence, because they feel safer there.
“The only guarantee now is from the U.N. presence. When the U.N. delegation leaves, people will be re-arrested,” Yazan said.
“So long as the detainees are not freed, no other men will leave the siege,” he added.
The State Department meanwhile said Washington expected Syria to keep its promise to free the men.
“The regime has said it would release men after they had been screened, and we expect them to keep that pledge,” spokesman Edgar Vasquez said.
He added: “The regime should know that the world is watching with deep concern what is taking place in Homs and the status of these male evacuees.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague called the detentions “outrageous. ... We need answers urgently about what is happening to them. They should be released immediately,” he said in a statement.
“There is also a serious risk that the evacuation of civilians will be used as a pretext for even more vicious attacks on Homs, and the international community must be extremely vigilant about that.”
A humanitarian operation began last Friday in ravaged Homs, Syria’s third city, where regime forces have besieged rebel-held districts for more than 600 days.
Activists say living conditions under the siege are dismal, with some 3,000 people surviving on little more than olives and herbs.
The United Nations says 336 men aged between 16 and 54 have left the besieged districts since Friday, although a U.N.-mediated deal had only envisaged the evacuation of women, children and the elderly.
The Homs operation has so far seen some 1,400 people evacuated and 6.2 tons of flour and 500 food parcels distributed.
Although no evacuations or aid deliveries were expected Thursday, Barazi said the truce will probably be extended until Saturday night to allow humanitarian operations to resume Friday.