Syrian civilians evacuated from besieged Homs

 08 Feb 2014 - 2:37

Civilians carry their belongings as they walk towards a meeting point to be evacuated from a besieged area of Homs, yesterday. Three busloads of civilians were evacuated from Homs yesterday, the first stage of a planned three-day humanitarian ceasefire in the city which has suffered some of the worst devastation of three-year conflict. 

HOMS, Syria: Dozens of civilians were evacuated from rebel-held areas of the Syrian city of Homs yesterday under a humanitarian truce after having survived more than 600 days under army siege.
The government in Damascus, meanwhile, confirmed it will join a new round of peace talks next week. Red Crescent volunteers aided frail-looking old men wrapped in blankets board a bus, as a woman on a stretcher awaited her turn.
Syrian troops yesterday retook most of Aleppo’s prison, after losses a day earlier, in fighting that killed at least 47 people in two days, a monitoring group said.
But it was unclear if hundreds of prisoners had been able to flee, as reported on Thursday after Islamist and jihadist fighters had overrun the facility.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said regime aircraft were keeping up their daily their assault on rebel-held districts of the northern city with barrel bombs.
In an amateur video filmed by activists in the nearby Waar area to which they were evacuated, one man smiled as he embraced his son, reunited for the first time in more than 18 months.
Large areas of Syria’s third city, dubbed “the capital of the revolution” against President Bashar Al Assad, have been reduced to rubble by fighting between rebels and government forces.
The UN resident coordinator in Syria, Yaacub El Hillo, said that by the afternoon more than 80 civilians had been evacuated, according to state television.
“More than 80 women, children and elderly men have successfully left the Old City of Homs, and we will continue to work on this with the Syrian government,” said El Hillo, according to the broadcaster.
State television charged that the civilians had been held as “human shields” by “terrorist groups” — the term which authorities use to describe rebels.
A correspondent said some 12 civilians came out on the first bus from the rebel enclave.
The evacuation is part of a deal brokered by the UN between the two sides after months of negotiations that will also see desperately needed aid delivered during a “humanitarian pause” in fighting.
Homs governor Talal Al Barazi said the first consignment of food and medicines will go in today.
Abul Hareth Al Khalidi, a cleric and spokesman for the besieged civilian population, said the evacuation of civilians will continue tomorrow. “Today most of the evacuated were elderly people. On Sunday, we plan for many women and children to leave,” he said via the Internet. Activists frequently report severe food and medical shortages, with some 3,000 people -- including 1,200 women, children, and elderly people — trapped there, surviving on little more than olives and grass.
Activist Yazansaid that those leaving had “mixed feelings”. They were happy to escape but worried about “what comes next” and feared being detained.
Barazi said those being allowed out were children under 15, men over 55 and women, calling the start of the UN-supervised operation a “success”.
UN World Food Programme staffers in blue vests attended the evacuation, and a vehicle with the logo of the refugee agency UNHCR was parked nearby.
The government agreed to observe a “humanitarian pause” and opposition activists in Homs said the rebels had agreed to a four-day ceasefire. The army launched a string of huge offensives to recapture rebel areas in the Old City in early 2012, with near-daily bombardments killing thousands. Attacks in February 2012 also claimed the lives of American war reporter Mary Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik.
Assad’s forces imposed the blockade in June 2012 after recapturing most of Homs, pushing the rebels into a small enclave in its centre.
Damascus to join new talks
A new advance last summer, after pro-government forces backed by Shia fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement recaptured the town of Qusayr, cut off the rebels’ supply route.
The plight of the trapped civilians was on the agenda of peace talks between the government and the opposition in Switzerland last month, that broke up without any agreement on access for relief supplies. The second round of peace talks due to open Monday had been uncertain, with the government having failed to announce whether it would attend. But Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad confirmed yesterday that a government delegation will travel to Geneva for more talks with the opposition. “It has been decided that the delegation of the Syrian republic will take part in the second round of negotiations in Geneva,” state news agency Sana quoted him as saying.
In the first round, the two sides failed to agree on a single point despite persistent pressure from UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, and co-sponsors Russia and the United States. On Tuesday, opposition Syrian National Coalition chief Ahmad Jarba met Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of Russia, a key Damascus ally, in Moscow.
For Assad’s foes, peace talks must focus on a transition, but the government insists his rule is not up for discussion.AFP