Besieged civilians in Syria's Homs await UN aid

AFP , Saturday 8 Feb 2014

Syrian Arab Red Crescent and United Nations personnel help evacuate Syrian civilians from a besieged area of Homs (Photo: Reuters)

The United Nations was poised to deliver aid to desperate civilians besieged in rebel-held areas of Syria's third city Homs on Saturday on the second day of a humanitarian truce.

The planned relief convoy comes after 83 children, women and elderly people who had survived more than 600 days under tight army blockade were evacuated from the war-battered enclave on Friday.

The Homs evacuation and aid delivery was made possible by a surprise UN-brokered deal between the government and rebel commanders on the ground to observe a three-day "humanitarian pause" in hostilities, which largely held on Friday, UN officials said.

The long-sought truce had eluded mediators in last month's fruitless first round of peace talks between government and opposition delegations in Switzerland which are due to resume in Geneva on Monday.

The desperately needed food and medicines have been held up for months in a UN warehouse in a government-controlled area just kilometres (miles) away from the trapped civilians awaiting the ceasefire required for their safe delivery.

Even after Friday's evacuation of a first group of civilians who wanted to leave, as many as 3,000 more remain in need inside the enclave, including hundreds more women and children.

Activists say remaining residents have been surviving on little but olives and wild cereals for months.

"UN teams have pre-positioned food, medical and other basic supplies for immediate delivery as soon as the first group of civilians are out and we hope to send this aid on Saturday morning," UN humanitarian coordinator for Syria Yacoub El Hillo said.

UN spokesman Farhan Haq said there had been sporadic shooting during the evacuation of civilians on Friday but that both sides broadly observed the ceasefire.

"We understand that for the most part the operation went smoothly, but there were isolated reports of gunfire heard during the day," he said.

UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos hailed the Homs truce as a "breakthrough" and "a small but important step toward compliance with international humanitarian law," he added.

"We'll try to evacuate more civilians and deliver aid in the next few days," Haq said.

"The people who were able to leave (on Friday) were women, children and the elderly.

"They were then delivered to the places of their choice escorted by UN and Syrian Red Crescent staff," he added.

Red Crescent volunteers helped frail-looking elderly people wrapped in blankets to board a bus, as a woman on a stretcher awaited her turn, an AFP correspondent reported.

Amateur video filmed by activists in the nearby Waar area showed a man smiling as he embraced his son, in their first reunion for more than 18 months.

Saturday's aid delivery was expected to be followed by further evacuations on Sunday, a cleric inside the rebel enclave told AFP via the Internet.

"On Sunday, we plan for many women and children to leave," Abdul Hareth al-Khalidi said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said five of those evacuated on Friday were children, and 17 were women.

Homs was dubbed "the capital of the revolution" by activists before a bloody 2012 counter-offensive by President Bashar al-Assad's forces recaptured much of the city.

Large areas of Homs have been reduced to rubble by the ferocious fighting.

Assad's forces imposed a tight blockade on the remaining rebel-held areas after their 2012 assault and further tightened the noose last summer with the capture of the town of Qusayr, which cut off rebel supply lines to neighbouring Lebanon.

Confessionally divided Homs straddles a strategic crossroads on the main highways between Damascus and the main northern city of Aleppo, and the interior and the Mediterranean coast.

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