DAMASCUS: Talks on a rebel withdrawal from a handful of besieged neighbourhoods in Syria’s Homs have entered their final phase, officials said yesterday, as the army advanced around Damascus and Aleppo.
Talks to evacuate Homs, once dubbed “the capital of the revolution” against President Bashar Al Assad, are near completion, according to Governor Talal Al Barazi and rebel representative and negotiator Abul Harith Al Khalidi.
The negotiations continued a day after a ceasefire began in the badly battered city, which has suffered some of Syria’s worst and most persistent violence since the revolt began in March 2011.
A rebel pull-out from a handful of besieged, opposition-held districts in the heart of the city would mean Assad’s regime has regained complete control of Homs. “Talks to rid the city of arms and of armed men... are ongoing and we are near the end,” said Barazi. Abul Harith said the talks are being held in tandem with negotiations to free a group of pro-regime Iranian officers held by rebels in the northern city of Aleppo.
Such a deal, which would include guarantees of safe passage for the Homs fighters, “is a way to put pressure on the regime,” he said, adding that all rebel groups, including the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front, had given him permission to negotiate the pullout. “We want to stop this bloodbath,” he said. Earlier, Barazi had said Al Nusra opposed the truce. Homs, Syria’s third city, is strategically located in the heart of the country.
Only a handful of neighbourhoods surrounding the historic and now destroyed Old City remain in rebel hands, after a series of massive army offensives starting in February 2012.
The vast majority of some 1,500 people still trapped in the Old City are fighters, but the rebel-held Waer neighbourhood is home to hundreds of thousands of civilians, many of them displaced from fallen rebel bastions.
Barazi said the deal “will be applied first in the Old City, then in Waer. The goal is to reach a peaceful solution that brings back security and government institutions.”
Elsewhere in Syria, the army pressed advances around Aleppo and took control of the road leading to the airport, according to a security source who said troops also made fresh gains northeast of the city.
Aleppo’s rebel areas have been under a massive aerial offensive since mid-December that has killed hundreds of people — mainly civilians — and forced thousands to flee.
Yesterday, rebels launched a mortar attack on a government-held area of Aleppo, hitting a hospital and killing 12 people, according to Sana state news agency.
Meanwhile, 22 civilians, mainly students, were wounded in a mortar attack that hit Aleppo University’s economics faculty.
Mortar rounds also hit Damascus, killing three people, Sana said. Three soldiers were killed in a car bombing in the Sammuriyeh neighbourhood of southwestern Damascus, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The army, backed by Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah fighters, made gains east of Damascus, advancing into the rebel-held town of Mleiha after several weeks of daily bombardment, according to the Observatory, a Britain-based monitoring group with contacts inside Syria.
Government newspaper Al Thawra, meanwhile, lashed out against UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos and called for her replacement days after she said a Security Council resolution demanding aid access across Syria was “not working”.
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Rights groups have accused the Syrian government of failing to comply with the UN resolution.
As the world marked Press Freedom Day, four organisations including Reporters Without Borders (RSF) issued a statement demanding the immediate release of journalists detained or abducted in Syria.
“Syria is now the world’s most dangerous country for news providers,” the joint statement said.
“Hundreds of journalists, citizen-journalists and media assistants have been killed, arbitrarily arrested, detained, abducted, subjected to enforced disappearance and tortured by the various parties to the conflict since the start of the uprising three years ago.”
Syria’s uprising began with peaceful protests in March 2011 calling for an end to the Assad family’s four-decade rule, but escalated into an armed insurgency after the regime launched a brutal crackdown on dissent.
The war has since killed more than 150,000 people and forced nearly half the population to flee their homes.
President Bashar Al Assad urged government bodies tasked with providing relief in war-torn Syria to increase “cooperation” with international and local organisations, state television reported. His statement came after UN chief Ban Ki-moon issued a report saying that foreign aid was still not reaching millions of needy Syrians despite a Security Council resolution in February calling for greater access.
Ban’s report last week blamed both sides in the war but singled out the government for particular censure.
Yesterday, state television broadcast footage showing Assad in a meeting with representatives of Syria’s governmental relief committee.
“There is a need for greater cooperation between ministries and the bodies involved in humanitarian aid, and to deliver aid without delay, and to work on the ground with all the local and international stakeholders to make aid delivery smoother,” he said.
Assad’s statement came three days after UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said Resolution 2139 was not working.AFP