HOMS, SYRIA – More relief moved in today for Syrians trapped in the Old City of Homs for nearly two years without aid, and more evacuees moved out, as Government and opposition delegates met in Geneva in United Nations-sponsored talks seeking to end the bloody conflict.
UN-Arab League Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, who yesterday said scant progress was being made in the talks which he is mediating, today met both delegations simultaneously, but made no statement afterwards.
Tomorrow, he will hold a joint meeting with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov and United States Under-Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in a bid to speed up the talks, which the two countries initiated in a diplomatic push to end a war that has killed well over 100,000 people and driven nearly 9 million others from their homes since it erupted between President Bashar al-Assad and various groups seeking his ouster nearly three years ago.
On the humanitarian front, food for around 1,000 people for one month was delivered to community leaders inside the Old City of Homs under a sometimes violated three-day “humanitarian pause” that the warring sides agreed to last week and then extended for a further three days to bring relief to a city that has become an iconic symbol of the suffering endured by civilians in the war’s relentless bombardments and sieges.
Some 200 men, women and children were reported to have left the besieged area so far today, bringing the total evacuated under the accord to 1,350, more than half the estimated 2,500 who have suffered the years-long siege, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said. As with those who left earlier, many were frail and had difficulty walking, it added.
Under the agreement, women, children and the elderly were allowed out but not men over 15 and under 54 years of age, but 336 men in this latter category, apparently unwilling to abandon their families, were detained by Syrian authorities in a school on the outskirts where UN officials are present but do not attend interrogation sessions. So far over 150 of these have been questioned and released.
UN officials have voiced deep concern at the detentions, warning that torture and mistreatment are war crimes.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is waiting along with partners to receive evacuees at a reception point at the edge of the Old Town. Only 200 have so far opted to go to a centre in the suburb of Al Waer which Syrian authorities have designated as a shelter should they wish, while the rest have asked to be taken to neighbourhoods where they have ties or might feel more secure.
Despite the declared “pause” sporadic mortar and sniper fire has at times interrupted the operation, which has been fraught with risk. On Sunday, UN and Syrian Arab Red Crescent aid workers delivering food and medical aid were deliberately targeted by fire that killed 11 civilians and almost completely destroyed the car of the UN country representative while he and colleagues were in it.