GENEVA: The fate of a U.N. aid convoy for thousands of Syrians besieged in the city of Homs hung in the balance Tuesday as the Syrian government demanded assurances that the supplies would not end up in the hands of “terrorists.”
Damascus describes all armed opponents of President Bashar Assad’s government as terrorists.
Efforts to get food and medical aid into Homs have become a test case on whether peace talks in Switzerland can produce any practical results almost three years into the Syrian conflict.
The United Nations said it was ready to deliver relief supplies to about 2,500 people trapped inside rebel-held parts of Homs, devastated by months of shelling and fighting. But the government said it first wanted to know who would get the aid.
“We are still waiting for assurances that these convoys will not go to armed groups, to terrorist groups inside the city. We want them to go to the women and children,” Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told reporters.
He said the U.N. resident coordinator in Damascus, Yacoub al-Helou, was shuttling between the two sides.
“The convoy is ready and still waiting to enter, the authorization has not yet been given. We haven’t given up on that,” mediator Lakhdar Brahimi told a news briefing.
A U.N. source in Homs said by telephone he did not know when the convoy would roll.
“I don’t think it will be decided in Homs but at the Damascus level with the U.N. It could be tomorrow or the day after,” the source added.
An afternoon session in the Geneva peace talks was canceled, the opposition delegation said, citing differences over the negotiation’s goals.
“We have not achieved any breakthrough, but we are still at it, and this is good enough as far as I’m concerned,” Brahimi said, adding that he was hoping for “a better session tomorrow [Wednesday] morning.”
His comments followed a flurry of statements from both sides blaming the other for obstructing the morning’s talks, which were marked by the regime delegation’s harsh condemnation of a report that the U.S. Congress had secretly approved funding for weapons deliveries to “moderate” Syrian rebel factions.
Brahimi rejected the regime’s contention that the United States, which along with Russia instigated the peace talks, was not dedicated to their success.
“I believe that they are serious and they want this track to be successful ... There is no doubt concerning that,” he said.
Opposition delegate Murhaf Jouejati said U.N. agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross had all the needed guarantees from anti-government forces for the aid convoy to move into Homs, blaming the government for holding it up.
Families in Syria’s third-biggest city are a small fraction of the quarter of a million Syrians who are living under siege in the country, according to U.N. estimates.
Opposition activists living in Homs’ Old City posted a letter on social media saying that unless the army siege was fully broken, all other measures would be superficial.
“We assure you and the world that the demands of the besieged are not limited to humanitarian aid,” the letter said, adding that dozens of medical cases were awaiting surgery. It called for “secure safe corridors to enter and exit [Homs] for those who want to, without their having to go through regime checkpoints that surround the besieged area.”
The U.N. World Food Program wants to deliver 500 family rations and 100 boxes of “Plumpy’Doz,” a specialized nutrition product that helps to treat children suffering from acute malnutrition, spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said.
The U.N. Children’s Fund, UNICEF, has sent the Syrian government a list of medical supplies it wants to send to civilians trapped in the Old City, just 10 km from its warehouse, but was still awaiting a green light.
The World Health Organization was also preparing medical supplies for the U.N. convoy to Homs, officials said.
The government has encircled hundreds of thousands of people across Syria, blocking off food and medicine. Rebels have also besieged 45,000 people in two Shiite towns in the north.
The Syrian opposition is willing to lift a siege on three pro-government villages in the north as part of a wider deal to relieve besieged towns on both sides, its spokesman said.
Edgar Vasquez, a U.S. State Department spokesman, accused the Syrian government of poisoning the atmosphere of peace negotiations with the opposition by denying aid deliveries. “Demanding opposition forces leave an area or put down their weapons before allowing the delivery of food and other much needed humanitarian assistance does not constitute an acceptable offer of humanitarian access,” he said.
Separately, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon suggested in a report Tuesday that an operation to remove Syria’s chemical weapons had been unnecessarily delayed and that he had expressed his concern to the Assad government.
Ban said in a report to the U.N. Security Council, dated Jan. 27 but made publicly available Tuesday, that a Dec. 31 deadline for removing Syria’s worst chemicals had been missed. Syria has said the operation faces security challenges.