600 evacuated from blockaded Syrian city of Homs

AP , Sunday 9 Feb 2014

Syrian civilians ready to leave Homs (Photo: Reuters)

Hundreds of civilians were evacuated Sunday from the besieged city of Homs, braving gunmen spraying bullets and lobbing mortar shells to flee as part of a rare three-day truce to relieve a choking blockade.

In the north, government aircraft dropped so-called barrel bombs — crude weapons packed with explosives, fuel and scraps of metal — on two rebel-held districts of Aleppo, killing at least 11 people, opposition activists said.

More than 600 people were evacuated from Homs with the assistance of the Syrian Red Crescent, according to Governor Talal Barrazi. The operation is part of a UN-mediated truce that began Friday between the government of President Bashar Assad and armed rebels to allow thousands of women, children and elderly men to leave opposition-held parts of the city, and to permit the entry of food and supplies.

Forces loyal to Assad have blockaded rebel-held parts of Homs for over a year, causing widespread hunger and suffering.

As one group of residents waited at the agreed-upon evacuation point of al-Qarabis, a rebel-held neighborhood, they came under fire, wounding dozens of people, according to three activists based in Homs, who spoke to The Associated Press by Skype.

Despite the gunfire and exploding mortar shells, hundreds of women, children and elderly men ran toward a group of Red Crescent workers waiting less than a mile (kilometer) away, said one activist, who gave his name as Samer al-Homsy. The Syrian activists said the gunfire came from a government-held neighborhood.

The Syrian news agency SANA also reported that civilians came under fire, but blamed "terrorists," the government term for rebels seeking to overthrow Assad. The Britain-based opposition group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said explosions and gunfire near the evacuation killed five men and boys, though it did not immediately give a breakdown of who they were.

At least four busloads of civilians were shipped out of the area, according to footage broadcast on the Lebanese television station al-Mayadeen. Wide-eyed children appearing sallow and exhausted tumbled out of the bus, assisted by aid workers. Some of the adults appeared emaciated. One toddler peered out of the window, waving at a camera.

One haggard-looking man said more than 1,000 civilians were still trapped in the city.

Khaled Erksoussi, head of operations for the Syrian Red Crescent, told The AP that the agency would try to evacuate as many civilians as possible before the truce expires Monday.

On Saturday, gunmen opened fire on civilians, leaving aid workers wounded and two trucks damaged, Erksoussi said, speaking by telephone from Damascus.

The constant attacks threatened the rare cease-fire in Syria's nearly 3-year-old conflict, hours before the resumption of peace talks in Geneva.

UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi has urged the warring sides to aid the estimated 2,500 civilians trapped in the ancient, rebel-held quarters known as Old Homs, in order to build trust during the first face-to-face meetings of government officials and opposition figures in Geneva last month.

There was no tangible progress however, as the Syrian government accused the opposition of capitalizing on human suffering in Homs to score points with the international community.

A second round of talks is set to start Monday. The Syrian delegation arrived in Switzerland Sunday evening.

Homs was one of the first areas to rise up against Assad in 2011 and has been particularly hard hit by the war. Over the past year, the government has regained control over much of the city, except for a few neighborhoods in the historic center.

Meanwhile, in the northern city of Aleppo, makeshift barrel bombs were dropped on two rebel-held districts Sunday afternoon, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. A child and a woman were among the dead.

Sunday's attacks are part of a weekslong campaign by Assad's forces to wrest control of Aleppo, parts of which were seized by rebels in mid-2012.

The Syrian uprising began with largely peaceful protests but gradually evolved into a civil war with sectarian overtones pitting predominantly Sunni Muslim rebels against Assad's government, which is dominated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shia Islam.

More than 130,000 people have been killed, according to activists. Millions have been forced out of their homes, seeking shelter in neighboring countries or in safer parts of their homeland.

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