Children, elderly women on wheelchairs and other civilians were evacuated Friday from besieged neighbourhoods of Syria's battleground city of Homs under a deal struck between the government and the opposition that also included a three-day ceasefire allowing aid convoys to enter.
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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 al-Assad, scheduled to begin in Geneva next week.
UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi had pushed for aid for the estimated 2,500 civilians trapped in the ancient, rebel-held quarters of the city 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.
Ceasefires between the warring sides in Syria's three-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 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 neighbourhoods in the historic centre, where rebels are holed up.
Evacuation excludes males aged 15 to 55
The government said 58 people — all of them women, children and elderly — were evacuated Friday. The civilians had endured a crushing blockade and severe food shortages for more than a year. Many of those who left appeared frail and exhausted.
Homs governor Talal Barrazi told Syrian state TV that the evacuation excludes men between the age of 15 and 55, who were likely to be fighters.
"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 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 atmosphere is positive'
The Russian Foreign Ministry said the evacuation was the result of "difficult discussions over many days" that also led to a three-day ceasefire beginning Thursday.
"The atmosphere is positive" Barrazi said, adding that the first batch of food supplies will be sent to rebel-held areas on Saturday.
'Humanitarian access should not be a political bargaining chip.'- U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki
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.
In the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest, government forces launched a counteroffensive against rebels who had stormed parts of the city's central prison earlier in the week and freed hundreds of prisoners. Syrian troops regained much of the area on Friday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The group said two days of fighting left 20 government troops and 17 rebels dead.
Rebels have been besieging the Aleppo prison, estimated to have 4,000 inmates, for almost a year. They have rammed suicide car bombs into the front gates twice, lobbed shells into the compound and battled frequently with the hundreds of guards and troops holed up inside.
The nearly 3-year-old uprising against Assad has left more than 130,000 people dead and forced more than 2.3 million to seek refuge abroad.