Syria, UN in 'Homs aid deal' as Aleppo fighting heats up

AFP , Thursday 6 Feb 2014

Syria and the UN have struck an aid deal for besieged areas of Homs, officials said Thursday, as more than 250 people were reported killed in six days of barrel-bomb attacks in Aleppo.

Also in northern Syria, rebels seized control of most of Aleppo's central prison, freeing hundreds of detainees, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

A week after peace talks in Geneva at which the situation in besieged districts of the city of Homs was discussed, state news agency SANA said an agreement has been reached to allow aid in and safe passage out for civilians.

"Homs governor Talal al-Barazi and UN resident coordinator Yaacoub El Hillo have reached an agreement securing the exit of innocent civilians from the Old City (of Homs) and the entrance of humanitarian assistance for civilians who choose to stay," SANA said.

There had previously been no deal on the exit of men, or the entry of much-needed aid into the city, where activists say some 3,000 people have been surviving on little more than olives for weeks.

According to SANA, "the relevant Syrian authorities will implement the deal by providing the necessary humanitarian assistance, including food, shelter and medical aid for innocent civilians who leave" the besieged districts.

It added that "food, medicine and other assistance will be sent in for civilians who choose to stay" in the neighbourhoods.

Rebel-held Old City districts of central Homs have also come under near-daily shelling ever since the army blockaded them in June 2012.

Abu Ziad, an activist in a besieged area, told AFP via the Internet that "the families are ready to leave. Many of them want to leave."

Among the besieged are at least 1,200 women, children and elderly people, according to the Britain-based Observatory.

Activists have frequently highlighted the plight of new mothers trapped in the siege, as being unable to breastfeed their infants as a result of their own malnutrition.

In Aleppo, more than 250 people have been killed in regime barrel bomb attacks, said the Observatory, as a coalition of rebels announced a new military operation in the province.

The Islamic Front -- a huge alliance grouping tens of thousands of rebels -- and the jihadist Al-Nusra Front announced an operation dubbed "Truthful Promise Approaches," a reference to a passage in the Koran.

The announcement comes as the Syrian army seeks to take territory in the rebel-held eastern part of Aleppo city.

Troops are moving in from areas around Aleppo international airport after recapturing territory nearby and reopening it to air traffic.

The ground campaign has been accompanied by six consecutive days of aerial attacks involving explosive-packed barrel bombs dropped from army helicopters.

The Observatory said that at least 257 people have been killed in barrel bomb attacks on eastern Aleppo since Saturday, including 11 on Thursday.

The dead include at least 76 children, according to the group.

Hundreds more have been wounded in the raids using the controversial unguided munitions, which have been condemned by rights groups as indiscriminate.

The heavy casualty toll has sparked a mass exodus from the worst-hit neighbourhoods in the east of the city.

Once the country's economic hub, Aleppo has been divided between government control in the west and rebel control in the east since a rebel offensive in mid-2012.

Just outside the city, rebels and jihadists on Thursday seized control of most of Aleppo's central prison after months of fighting, freeing hundreds of detainees, the Observatory said.

State television denied the report, saying soldiers and security forces had "thwarted an attack against the prison by terrorist groups."

Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP that Islamic Front member "Ahrar al-Sham and (Al-Qaeda affiliate) Al-Nusra Front have taken control of 80 percent of Aleppo central prison and freed hundreds of prisoners."

The advance came after a suicide attack carried out by an Al-Nusra fighter at the prison's main entrance.

An Ahrar al-Sham fighter, meanwhile, told AFP on condition of anonymity that the clashes were continuing.

"The fighting is ongoing. We have taken control of one of the prison buildings and brought down the regime flag," he said via Skype.

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