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BEIRUT, Lebanon, February 11 (UNHCR) - More than 1,100 civilians have taken advantage of a three-day "humanitarian pause" this weekend to flee the besieged Old City of Homs in western Syria.
UN officials said the number evacuated - 1,151 by latest count - was larger than expected and added that it was the first tangible result to come out of peace talks launched earlier this month in Geneva between opposing sides in the Syrian conflict. The evacuation was continuing on Tuesday.
Of those evacuated, 336 men aged below 55 years or above 15 are being questioned by authorities in the Andalus collective centre, an abandoned school in Homs. Some came with their wives and children - more than 40 had been released and went to Al Waer, a suburb on the outskirts of Homs. UNHCR and its partners are monitoring the situation.
Meanwhile, UN workers and their partners, with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), delivered urgently needed food and medicine to civilians trapped in the Old City. At the same time, underscoring the fragile nature of talks, both civilians and aid workers came under heavy fire during the operation. Scores were injured.
Talks are under way to extend the ceasefire for another three days to enable UN and SARC workers to bring assistance to those left behind. The effort came as a new round of talks in Geneva got under way on Monday.
"We are very concerned about the humanitarian situation," said UNHCR Representative to Syria Tarik Kurdi. "We would like all civilians to have the chance to come out. We want to help save as many lives as possible," he added, as the chief of UNHCR praised those who entered the Old City.
"I would like to pay tribute to the enormous courage of the volunteers of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the staff of the UN who carried out the effort," UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said in a statement. "I am particularly encouraged by the determination of our staff to go on trying to help those who so far haven't been reached," he said. "This shows that even in the darkest of nights it is possible to offer a glimmer of hope."
On Saturday, aid workers were targeted by rifle and mortar fire. Some 83 civilians were able to escape the Old City. On Sunday, another 592 managed to flee. Some literally ran to the safety of waiting UN vehicles to avoid sniper fire.
Representatives of UN agencies - including UNHCR, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) - together with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent met with the displaced after they fled the town and took them to a reception centre where they were given food, medicine and a small amount of cash (US$135 per person).
UN workers interviewed those who had escaped about conditions in the Old City in order to better target assistance to those left behind. According to the terms of the framework agreement that led to the pause, those allowed to leave were older people (over 55 years of age), women and children. UN staff reported many were in poor health and profoundly traumatized by their ordeal.
The Old City has been cut off for more than 18 months. Those who escaped spoke of shortages and near-starvation conditions. "We started eating weeds and after that, what was left for us to eat?" one elderly man told an interviewer. "We started grinding coriander and wheat and cinnamon. We ate that, thank God. We don't have anything else. What should we be eating: animals or cats?"
On the second day of the weekend's operation, when UN and SARC staff attempted to enter the Old City along a previously agreed route, carrying hygiene sets, food parcels, vaccines and medicines, the convoys came under heavy fire, twice by mortars or similar calibre weapons. Over six hours, the teams delivering aid and those receiving the assistance were targeted, according to UN officials.
Scores were injured, including the driver of one of the SARC trucks. More than 10 people died. Hundreds who wanted to leave were prevented from doing so because of the violence. Two trucks were so badly damaged that they had to be left behind in the Old City; a second convoy was fired on and two trucks incapacitated.
As a result, less than half of the necessary supplies reached their destination. One senior UN official called Saturday a "day from Hell." Still, aid workers continued deliveries of basic food supplies the next day.
Hundreds of thousands are surviving in hard-to-reach or besieged towns across Syria. Elsewhere over the past week, UNHCR began a series of 13 airlifts out of Damascus in order to deliver essential winter supplies and medicine to 50,000 displaced civilians in the north-east of the country. The first flight included hundreds of boxes of vaccines, syringes, sugar and saline solution. Cold, damp weather has triggered an increase in respiratory illnesses such as asthma and flu.
By Andrew Purvis in Beirut, Lebanon