Buses ferried dozens of weary-looking evacuees, accompanied by the
Syrian Arab Red Crescent, to a meeting point outside Homs where aid
workers, soldiers and police were gathered. The World Food Programme
said many appeared malnourished.
"They were living on leaves and grass and olives and whatever they
could find," WFP spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said.
The long awaited move was meant to have been a relatively
straightforward opening step in the peace talks, which resume on
Monday in Geneva with little prospect of resolving core grievances
of a conflict which has killed 130,000 people.
It marked the start of a planned three-day humanitarian ceasefire,
but even as it took place, activists said they feared for the fate
of both evacuees and those left behind.
Under the Homs deal, women, children and old men were allowed to
leave the Old City, which has been cut off by President Bashar
al-Assad's forces, while humanitarian supplies will be allowed in to
those who remain.
"The United Nations can confirm that 83 people were evacuated from
Old Homs City today," said U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq. "The people — women, children and the elderly — were then delivered to places of
their choice, escorted by United Nations and Syrian Arab Red
It was the first time the Red Crescent had gained access to the
center of Homs since the siege began, the aid agency said.
The WFP said it had trucks ready to take a month's supply of food on
Saturday to an estimated 2,500 people trapped in the rebel-held
heart of the city.
"There are signs of malnutrition, for some of them it is very
obvious," Byrs said. "Some said they have not eaten bread for five
Russia said a three-day ceasefire had been agreed in the city, which
was one of the first areas to erupt in protest against Assad nearly
three years ago and where street after street has been destroyed in
heavy fighting between Assad's forces and rebels seeking his
Syrian authorities had announced that evacuees would be given
medical treatment and shelter, and that residents of Old Homs who
prefer to remain will be sent humanitarian aid.
Moscow, which has supported and armed Assad throughout the civil
war, hailed the Homs deal as a "landmark agreement",.
Western officials gave a skeptical response, saying Syria had an
unconditional obligation to civilians trapped by conflict and
arguing the issue should not have required weeks of negotiation to
allow aid to enter.
"The regime should let the humanitarian convoy in. Then the
population should decide to stay or leave," said Jon Wilks,
Britain's special representative for Syria.
Rebels have rejected similar offers to evacuate women and children
in the past because of concerns about what might happen to any men,
including fighters, who are left behind. Dozens of men were detained
and disappeared after a similar deal made last year in Mouadamiya,
west of Damascus.
AILING CIVILIANS REMAIN
There were differing reports about where the evacuees were headed.
An activist in the Old City of Homs said they were being taken to
Al-Waar — a neighborhood on the north-western edge of Homs where
many of the city's Sunni population have already fled.
"We are very concerned that some of the people who will arrive in
Waar today will be arrested by the regime later," Hassan Abuzain
said by Skype.
"Last night the regime shelled the Old City and this morning it
shelled Waar, the very place we are sending these people to for
He said one man who approached the first bus for evacuation had been
shot and wounded by a sniper, blaming Assad's forces for the
shooting. There was no comment from officials, who have frequently
blamed rebels for firing on humanitarian convoys.
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Television footage of one bus which brought the evacuees out
appeared to show several bullet holes in the back of the vehicle,
though it was not clear when the damage occurred.
U.N. aid chief Valerie Amos welcomed Friday's operation as "a
breakthrough and a small but important step towards with compliance
with international humanitarian law," but "she said she understood
that many civilians, sick and wounded, remain in the Old City of
Homs," Haq said.
Australia, Luxembourg and Jordan presented to the five permanent
U.N. Security Council members a draft resolution demanding full
access for humanitarian aid workers across Syria. It was quickly
dismissed by Russia as a "non-starter."
Homs governor Talal al-Barazi said earlier that the first group of
evacuees from Homs would include children under 15, men over 55, and
women. He said reception centers had been set up to receive and
treat people leaving the old city, although those evacuated were
free to go wherever they liked.
"We hope this first step will succeed and will continue tomorrow and
after tomorrow and so on to ensure safe exit to all civilians who
want to leave the old city."
Barazi said some Christian residents were also trying to leave the
city center but officials had not yet managed to secure them safe
passage from their homes in the Hamadiya and Bustan al-Diwan
districts of the city.
"God willing, we'll be able to provide better conditions for those
who are in the old city to safely exit."
The deal took much longer than diplomats expected, boding ill for
the future of the peace talks, which the opposition says must focus
on political transition which world powers called for after a June
2012, meeting in Geneva.
The government says the priority is to end terrorism — a label it
gives to all armed opposition — and says political transition, which
it rejects, is only part of the agenda.
State news agency SANA cited Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad
on Friday confirming the government would attend the second round of
talks and demand a discussion "article by article" of the 2012
"Restoring peace and stability throughout the Syrian Arab Republic
requires putting an end to terrorism and violence, as is said in the
Geneva communiqué," Mekdad said.
Syria's conflict began with peaceful protests against four decades
of Assad family rule and degenerated into an armed insurgency after
a fierce security crackdown.
Now the major Arab state is in a full-scale civil war that has
killed more than 130,000 people and forced over 6 million — nearly a
third of the population — to flee their homes.
(Additional reporting by Alexander Dziadosz and Erika Solomon in
Beirut, Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles in Geneva, Steve Gutterman
in Moscow and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; writing by
Dominic Evans; editing by Giles Elgood and Philippa Fletcher)
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