'No concrete step' yet for Homs evacuation, aid: ICRC

AFP , Monday 27 Jan 2014

Civilians stand between damaged buildings and vehicles in the besieged area of Homs January 27, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)

No concrete steps have been taken to evacuate women and children or provide aid to the besieged Old City of Homs despite an agreement at Syrian peace talks in Geneva, the Red Cross said Monday.

"Until today noon, there has been no concrete step taken for any operation of this type in Homs Old City," Robert Mardini, head of operations for the Middle East at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), told AFP.

On Sunday at the UN-brokered negotiations in Geneva, Syria's regime agreed to allow women and children safe passage from rebel-held areas of the city of Homs where they have been under siege for nearly 600 days, with near-daily shelling and the barest of supplies.

It was the first tangible promise at the talks, which mark the first time Syria's opposition and the regime have sat in the same room since the war erupted in 2011.

Opposition activists in Homs expressed scepticism, however, saying they first wanted aid supplies and "guarantees" that those leaving would not be arrested.

More than half of the 500 women and children trapped in Homs refuse to be evacuated, saying they fear leaving male relatives behind, activists said Monday.

Some 3,000 people are thought to be trapped in Homs' rebel-held areas, according to rights groups.

In Geneva, opposition spokesman Monzer Aqbiq said offering civilians the chance to leave a besieged community should not mean that they must do so.

"People living in their city should not be starved out of their city. This is against human rights law. They should get food and medicine, even in war-time," he told reporters.

US State Department official Edgar Vazquez echoed that.

"We firmly believe that the Syrian regime must approve the convoys to deliver badly needed humanitarian assistance into the Old City of Homs now. The situation is desperate and the people are starving," Vazquez said in a statement.

"An evacuation is not an alternative to badly needed humanitarian assistance," he said.

Forced evacuations can breach the laws of war, notably the Geneva Conventions overseen by the ICRC.

"In no way should anybody be forcing civilians to leave," said Mardini.

"We know from our experience that people will not wish to leave their homes, their personal belongings," he added, saying aid agencies should be allowed in to assess needs.

"There won't be any quick wins. We should be under no illusion that this will solve the problem. And access is not a one-off, where you get in with some food parcels and medical aid," he said, noting that longer-term relief efforts would be essential.

The ICRC has not been into Homs since November 2012, Mardini said. He was unable to confirm opposition claims that a Red Crescent convoy was standing by.

The ICRC, known since the 19th century for its operations in war zones, has repeatedly sounded the alarm about the crisis in Syria.

"There is a need to take immediate action to address this very acute crisis," Mardini said. "For this to happen, there is a need of course for very strong leadership among politicians here (in Geneva), but also on the ground in Syria, between all parties involved."

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