Homs evacuation halted by UN over detained men

The United Nations temporarily suspended the evacuation of civilians from the embattled Syrian city of Homs on Friday, a senior UN official says.

Dozens of men from embattled city still being questioned by Syrian authorities

A boy holds his baby sister saved from under rubble after what activists say was an airstrike by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo. More than 130,000 people have died in the conflict since it began three years ago. (Hosam Katan/Reuters)

The United Nations temporarily suspended the evacuation of civilians from the embattled Syrian city of Homs on Friday, a senior UN official said, while the government screened military age males who left the area. Meanwhile near Lebanon, Syrian forces and rebels clashed over the strategic town of Yabroud, causing hundreds of people to flee over the border.

The halt in evacuations came just a day after a ceasefire was extended for three more days. Hundreds more civilians are believed to still be trapped in a rebel-held medieval quarter known as Old Homs.

Senior Syria UN official Matthew Hollingworth told The Associated Press by telephone from Damascus that dozens of men and boys aged 15 to 55, who left Old Homs during earlier evacuations, are still being held and questioned by Syrian authorities.

"The agreement has been we will now concentrate on the process of completing the regularization of status of the men from 15 to 55," Hollingworth said. "Only when that's done, will we look at another evacuation." Later in the day however he said the UN was not linking the next evacuation to the release of the men being processed by Syrian authorities.

The Syrian government considers males of military age to be potential combatants who must obtain security clearance before being released. Those authorities suspect of being rebels will likely be detained.

Hollingworth said several dozen men were being held in a school in Homs and that UN officials are also present there.

1,400 evacuated from Homs so far

They were part of 1,400 people evacuated by the UN and the Syrian Red Crescent from opposition-held areas of Homs over the past week as a fragile truce took hold between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and armed rebels seeking his overthrow.

In all, over 400 men from Homs have handed themselves over to Syrian forces, and around 200 have already been released. An AP tally shows that around another 220 are still being held.

The detentions have caused widespread concern among Syrian activists who say Assad's security forces have tortured and killed opposition detainees. International rights groups have made similar complaints.

Hollingworth said men seeking evacuation understand they will have to be present themselves to Syrian security forces.

Also Friday, Syrian troops and rebels clashed around the rugged hills surrounding the town of Yabroud — the last rebel stronghold in Syria's mountainous Qalamoun region. Syrian aircraft fired shells toward farmlands close to the town and clashes broke out in the nearby town of al-Sahel, said local activist Nader al-Husseini.

Plumes of smoke rose from the hills near Yabroud on footage broadcast by the Lebanon-based television station al-Mayadeen. The station's correspondent said Syrian forces had seized the Marsad hill overlooking the town in a new blow to rebels.

A Syrian officer in the area told the station that government forces also seized control of smuggling routes used to supply rebels from neighbouring Lebanese towns dominated by Sunni Muslims, who have generally supported the uprising against Assad.

Backed by Lebanon's Hezbollah fighters, the Syrian army has been on a crushing offensive in the region since early December, trying to sever a main thoroughfare for rebels from Lebanon.

At least 500 families fled the area, crossing into the neighbouring Lebanese town of Arsal, said UN official Dana Sleiman.

In the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, rebels blew up part of the once-luxurious Carlton Hotel, where soldiers were stationed, by tunnelling underneath the sprawling building and planting explosives, said Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Abdurrahman said five soldiers were killed, while government news agency SANA said soldiers repelled an attack at the hotel but gave no other details.