DAMASCUS: A United Nations official is negotiating with rebel fighters in besieged neighborhoods of a central Syrian city to allow the evacuation of civilians, the provincial governor and an activist said Tuesday.
Talal Barrazi, the governor of Homs province, said in a statement that policewomen, paramedics and members of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent are ready to arrange the evacuation from the city of Homs and "we are waiting for the U.N.'s response."
The comments come two days after a tentative agreement was reached at peace talks in Geneva between the Syrian government and its opponents for the evacuation of women and children trapped in Homs before aid convoys enter. U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who is mediating the Swiss talks, said security problems are delaying the evacuation.
The old city of Homs has been under siege for nearly two years.
"We are hopeful that the U.N. team will succeed in getting an approval from armed groups in the old city to guarantee evacuation of civilians," Barrazi said. "We are ready."
An activist in Homs who goes by the name Firas al-Homsi confirmed that talks are taking place, and said the government is "refusing to allow food" into the area.
"Nothing has changed since the Geneva talks and yesterday we were subjected to heavy shelling," al-Homsi said via Skype. He said the conditions in besieged areas are miserable, with people mostly relying on olives to survive.
Homs, Syria's third-largest city, has been one of the hardest hit areas since the country's crisis began in March 2011.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said several Homs neighborhoods were being subjected to mortar and heavy machine gun fire Tuesday. It said there were no casualties.
Barrazi said Syrian authorities have asked the International Committee of the Red Cross to help in evacuating Father Francis Van Der Lugt from a monastery in Bustan al-Diwan in Homs. Van Der Lught, 72, has been living in Syria since 1964.
On Saturday, the Dutch priest wrote on a Syrian Christian Facebook page that "hunger has rolled over us! Hunger defeated us! We can see its signs drawn over the faces."
"People are wandering the streets screaming; We are starving, we need food! They stop by the inhabited houses trying to find some food. Hunger breaks the rules and eliminates all moral principles," the priest wrote in a statement published in English and French. "We are living a scary reality. Human beings turn into wild animals living in the wild!"
Elsewhere in Syria, violence claimed more lives Tuesday with clashes around the country and several air raids on the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest and former commercial center, according to the Observatory and the Aleppo Media Center. The Observatory said there were casualties while the AMC said the death toll could be as high as 20 in Aleppo.
The Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees reported heavy clashes late Monday in the village of Rahjan in the central province of Hama. The Observatory said the fighting was between government troops and members of al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front.
The Observatory said 13 soldiers and five Nusra Front fighters were killed in the clashes. It said a Saudi citizen carry out a suicide car bombing in the operation.
State media reported that troops killed scores of "terrorists" throughout the country, employing the term government officials use to refer to opposition fighters.
Also Tuesday, a militant website used by jihadi groups reported that Turki al-Ashaari, the Nusra Front's Islamic judge, was killed in an attack on a government stronghold and Syrian troops in Hama. It did not say when he was killed or give his nationality, but described him as "one of Nusra Front's lion heros."
Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Maamoun Youssef contributed to this report from Cairo.