By BASSEM MROUE, Associated Press
BEIRUT (AP) — Dozens of children, women and elderly people on wheelchairs were evacuated Friday from besieged neighborhoods of Syria's battleground city of Homs under a deal struck between the government and the opposition that also included a three-day cease-fire allowing aid convoys to enter.
The rare truce in Homs may help build some confidence ahead of a second round of peace talks between the opposition and the government of President Bashar Assad, scheduled to begin in Geneva next week.
By nightfall, around 80 civilians were brought out of the city, many of them appearing frail and exhausted. Residents have endured a crushing blockade and severe food shortages for more than a year.
U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi had pushed for aid for the estimated 2,500 civilians trapped in the ancient, rebel held quarters known as Old Homs as a confidence-building measure during the first face-to-face meetings in Geneva last month.
The talks were adjourned until Feb. 10 with no tangible progress achieved, as the Syrian government accused the opposition of capitalizing on human suffering in Homs to score points with the international community.
Cease-fires between the warring sides in Syria's 3-year-old conflict have been rare but not unprecedented. Several such temporary truces were negotiated in areas in and around Damascus to allow for the evacuation of civilians and the delivery of food parcels in the past year.
Homs, one of the first areas to rise up against Bashar Assad in 2011, has been particularly hard hit. Over the past year, the government has regained control over much of the city, except for a few neighborhoods in the historic center, where rebels are holed up.
The extent of the evacuation is not clear, and officials have not said how many civilians in all will leave. Earlier, Syrian TV had said 200 were expected to leave Friday and dozens more in the following days. The evacuation excludes men between the ages of 15 and 55, who are seen as likely fighters, Homs governor Talal Barrazi told Syrian state TV.
U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said that while the operation is indeed a breakthrough, many civilians, sick and wounded remain in the old city of Homs, U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York.
Haq said: "We understand that for the most part the operation went smoothly, but there were isolated reports of gunfire heard during the day... We'll try to evacuate more civilians and deliver aid in the next few days."
The evacuees will be allowed to go wherever they want, Homs' governor said, adding that a shelter has been prepared, capable of taking up to 400 people with nowhere else to go.
"I tell those who left today that soon we will celebrate with them by returning them to their homes," he said, suggesting that the government plans to recapture areas under rebel control.
Syrian TV showed elderly men, some wrapped in blue blankets, arriving at the frontline separating government and opposition-held territory in Homs, assisted by Syrian Red Crescent paramedics in red uniforms.
They were searched, then transported in buses to a nearby shelter where they were given water and food. An elderly man on a stretcher was loaded into an ambulance.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said the evacuation was the result of "difficult discussions over many days" that also led to a three-day cease-fire, which began Thursday.
"The atmosphere is positive" Barrazi said, adding that the first batch of food supplies will be sent to rebel-held areas on Saturday.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Thursday the evacuation "is not a substitute for the safe, regular and unfettered delivery of humanitarian assistance to those in need."
"Humanitarian access should not be a political bargaining chip," she said.