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In this photo taken on Sunday Feb. 9, 2014, and released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian army soldiers, top background, look on as two women walk towards a bus to evacuate the battleground city of Homs, Syria. A Syrian Red Crescent official says around 300 more people were evacuated Monday from besieged rebel-held neighborhoods of Syria's third-largest city, Homs. (AP Photo/SANA)
Rush to flee as truce extended in blockaded Syrian city
Geneva » Second round of peace talks opens; two sides won’t even sit at same table.
First Published Feb 10 2014 06:34 pm • Last Updated Feb 10 2014 07:44 pm

BEIRUT • Aid officials rushed to evacuate more women, children and elderly from rebel-held areas that have been blockaded by government troops for more than a year in Syria’s third-largest city, Homs, after a U.N.-brokered cease-fire in the city was renewed for three more days Monday.

The truce, which began Friday, has been shaken by continued shelling and shooting that prevented some residents from escaping and limited the amount of food aid officials have been able to deliver into the besieged neighborhoods.

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U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos sharply criticized the two sides, saying U.N. and Syrian Red Crescent workers were "deliberately targeted."

The drama in Homs, where Amos said around 800 civilians have been evacuated so far, played out as activists on Monday reported new sectarian killings in Syria’s civil war.

Al-Qaida-inspired rebels killed more than two dozen civilians, including an entire family, when they overran a village populated by minority Alawites on Sunday, Rami Abdurrahman of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. They also killed around 20 local fighters in the village, he said.

The violence further rattled peace talks that entered their second round Monday in Geneva — and which quickly became mired in recriminations between President Bashar Assad’s government and the opposition in exile.

The two sides’ first face-to-face meetings adjourned 10 days ago, having achieved little. This time, the two appeared even further apart, with no immediate plans to even sit at the same table. U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi was holding separate talks with each side.

"The negotiations cannot continue while the regime is stepping up its violence against the Syrian people," opposition spokesman Louay Safi told reporters after talks with Brahimi. The opposition insists the talks’ aim is to agree on a transitional governing body that would replace Assad.

But Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said the issue of Assad stepping down was not on the agenda. "Please tell those who dream of wasting our time here in such a discussion to stop it," he told a reporter.

The events of the past few days have only underscored each side’s position. The government says it is trying to defeat an extremist, al-Qaida-style insurgency. Syria’s opposition, in turn, points to government blockades of dozens of rebel-held areas that have caused widespread hunger and sickness among civilians as proof of the cruelty of Assad’s rule.


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The aid operation in Homs laid bare the desperation in the besieged areas. Homs, in central Syria, was one of the first cities to rise up against Assad, and while government forces have retaken much of the city, several rebel-held districts in its historic old center have been under a suffocating siege for more than a year.

Many of those evacuated since Friday "were traumatized and weak," Amos said in a statement. They reported "terrible conditions at the field hospital in the Old City, where the equipment is basic, there are no medicines and people are in urgent need of medical attention," she said.

She said around 800 had been evacuated since Friday, though the governor of Homs province put the number at around 1,070, including 460 evacuated on Monday. Under the U.N.-brokered truce, the government refused to allow males between the ages of 15 and 55 to leave, presuming them to be fighters. Those leaving are women, children and elderly.

Amos said the truce had been extended for three days. The original truce ran from Friday to Sunday, but the continued shelling and shooting between the two sides severely limited efforts. Eleven people were killed by the fighting.

Over the weekend, some women and elderly tried to leave but were unable to make their way through checkpoints to evacuation buses, according to Khaled Erksoussi, the head of operations of the Syrian Red Crescent.

He said some food aid was brought into the areas over the weekend — "but not the quantity we had hoped for" — and none made it in on Monday.

On Sunday, residents rushed through gunfire to reach U.N. vehicles carrying food that did make it in. Then they fought over the oil, sugar and other supplies, according to one activist in Homs who uses the nickname Eman al-Homsy for security reasons.

"They didn’t care about death; the hunger was killing them," Eman said.

Erksoussi echoed the worries of activists who said they fear that once civilians are evacuated, fighting will only escalate. "We know that not all civilians will leave, but the fighting parties will claim that they did and step up the shelling and shooting," he said by phone from Damascus.

Around a quarter-million people in 40 districts besieged by government forces have been cut off from humanitarian aid for months, said Ertharin Cousin, executive director of the U.N.’s World Food Program. In the Yarmouk area, on Damascus’ southern fringe, activists estimate over 100 people have died from hunger-related illness and a lack of medical aid because of a year-long blockade.

At the United Nations, Russia threatened to veto Western efforts to push through a Security Council resolution that would raise the prospect of sanctions against Syria unless the government gives unrestricted access to deliver humanitarian aid.

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