Syria starts evacuating civilians from besieged Homs centre

by Reuters
Friday, 7 February 2014 15:28 GMT

A boy pushes another on a pram along a damaged street filled with debris in the besieged area of Homs February 2, 2014. Picture taken February 2, 2014. REUTERS/Thaer Al Khalidiya

Image Caption and Rights Information
Russia says a three-day ceasefire has been agreed in the city, which has suffered some of the worst devastation of Syria's civil war

* Three-day ceasefire in Homs

* 200 expected to be evacuated from Old City

* Government confirms it will go to Geneva talks (Updates throughout)

By Khaled Hariri

HOMS, Syria, Feb 7 (Reuters) - Syria evacuated three busloads of civilians from a besieged area of Homs on Friday, the first stage of a planned three-day humanitarian ceasefire in the city which has suffered some of the worst devastation of Syria's three-year conflict.

The buses carrying dozens of weary-looking evacuees, accompanied by Syrian Arab Red Crescent officials, arrived at a meeting point outside Homs watched by soldiers and police.

The deal is the first positive result of peace talks which were launched two weeks ago between Syria's warring foes and resume on Monday in Geneva, with little prospect of resolving core grievances behind a war which has killed 130,000 people.

Under the Homs deal, women, children and old men are allowed to leave the Old City which has been under siege by President Bashar al-Assad's forces for a year and a half, while humanitarian supplies will be allowed in to those who remain.

The World Food Programme said it had trucks ready to take a month's supply of food on Saturday to the estimated 2,500 hungry and malnourished people who have been trapped for months in the rebel-held heart of the city.

Syrian authorities and aid groups said they expected around 200 people to leave the rebel-controlled neighbourhoods. By Friday afternoon about 80 people had been evacuated, a U.N. official told Syrian television. It was the first time the Red Crescent had gained access to the centre of Homs since the siege began, the aid agency said.

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 overthrow.

Syrian authorities had announced that evacuees would be given medical treatment and shelter. They said residents of Old Homs who prefer to remain will be sent humanitarian aid as well.

Moscow, which has supported and armed Assad throughout the civil war, hailed the Homs deal as a "landmark agreement", but Western officials gave a sceptical response, saying Syria had an unconditional obligation to civilians trapped by conflict, 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 diplomatic representative to the Syrian opposition.

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.

There were differing reports about where the evacuees were headed. Officials said they could choose their destination, but an activist in the Old City of Homs said they were being taken to Al-Waar - a neighbourhood 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 safety."

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.

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.


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 centres had been set up to receive and treat people leaving the old city, although those evacuated were free to go wherever they liked.

"We are ready today to receive any number, even if it exceeds 400, but according to the United Nations yesterday the expected number is 200, or it could be lower," he told Syrian television.

"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 centre 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."

Humanitarian access to Homs had been the first item on the agenda at the Geneva peace talks when they opened a fortnight ago, intended to be a relatively consensual issue which could build momentum to address the far more intractable political divide between Assad and his foes. Yet the deal took much longer than diplomats expected.

The opposition say peace talks 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 Geneva Communique.

"Restoring peace and stability throughout the Syrian Arab Republic requires putting an end to terrorism and violence, as is said in the Geneva communiques," 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; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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