Syria extends Homs ceasefire as UN peace talks begin

A Syrian Red Crescent official says about 300 more people were removed Monday from besieged, rebel-held neighbourhoods of Syria's third-largest city, Homs, after Syria extended a ceasefire there "for a few days."

More rescues of civilians made by Syrian Red Crescent as fighting continues elsewhere

The people come out, food and supplies go in before the next cycle of Syria fighting begins 2:06

A Syrian Red Crescent official says about 300 more people were removed Monday from besieged, rebel-held neighbourhoods of Syria's third-largest city, Homs.

Khaled Erksoussi, the Red Crescent's head of operations, says the group was notified that a ceasefire in Homs that ended Sunday has been extended "for a few days."

The day's evacuations brought to around 1,000 the number of people brought out of Homs since Friday, when the truce began. The Red Crescent has also delivered some food aid into the districts, despite shelling, though none was taken in on Monday, Erksoussi said.

Some reports said the UN-brokered ceasefire in Homs was renewed on Monday for three more days.

The announcement came as the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that al-Qaeda-inspired rebels overran the village of Maan on Sunday, killing more than two dozen civilians, including an entire family. The village north of the central city of Hama is populated by minority Alawites.

Red Crescent workers targeted

Syrian state media described the attack on Maan as a "massacre" perpetrated by rebels fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad.

Despite the truce in Homs, sporadic shelling and shooting over the weekend drew sharp criticism from UN humanitarian chief Valerie, who said both sides in the clashes appeared to have "deliberately targeted" UN and Syrian Red Crescent workers.

Government forces have been besieging the rebel-held districts in the city for months, cutting off supplies.

In Geneva, representatives from the Syrian government were meeting Monday with members of the opposition, beginning the second round of negotiations aimed at ending the nearly three-year civil war, the CBC's Derek Stoffel reported from Jerusalem.

Red Crescent trucks stand by in the besieged neighbourhoods of Homs to supply humanitarian aid. (Thaer Al Khalidiya/Reuters)

The weekend rescue of people took place as aid workers delivered much-needed supplies to Homs, where 2,500 people have been trapped with little food or medicine.

"In Syria these days, a short ceasefire is seen as a victory," Stoffel said. "There are few who hold any hope that these talks in Geneva will bring an end to three years of suffering, three years of bloody civil war."

Erksoussi had said he hoped the ceasefire would allow more aid to be delivered and more rescues to be facilitated.

"We know about more people need and want to be evacuated," he said. "What we are trying to do now is push new, safe exit point."

Mediator seeks declaration

He told The Associated Press by phone from Damascus that there are 200 families, mostly Christians, who want to leave two rebel-held districts in central Homs. Those people were unable to reach the designated exit point from the city during the ceasefire. 
Civilians walk towards a meeting point to be removed from a besieged area of Homs Monday. About 600 people left the area, escaping more than a year of hunger and deprivation caused by one of the most protracted blockades of Syria's devastating conflict. (Thaer Al Khalidiya/Reuters)

In Geneva, Lakhdar Brahimi, the Algerian United Nations envoy and adviser who is acting as mediator at talks between Syria and rebels, asked the two sides to declare that they have the political will to resolve the issues on the table.

Brahimi told delegations he plans to address issues of stopping the violence and establishing transitional governing body in parallel, according to a document obtained by Reuters.

As well, he plans to keep meeting delegations separately for next two or three days, hoping for the atmosphere at the talks to improve, Reuters said.

May help Assad message

Islamic extremists, including foreign fighters and Syrian rebels who have taken up hardline, al-Qaeda-style ideologies, have played an increasingly prominent role among the rebel fighters fighting forces loyal to Assad, who is a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam.

The raid on Maan is likely to bolster efforts by the government delegation to convey their narrative at the Geneva peace talks that the three-year uprising to overthrow Assad is dominated by al-Qaeda extremists. The extremists see Alawites as apostates who should be killed.

Rami Abdurrahman, who runs the Observatory for Human Rights, said Islamic fighters overran Maan after Alawite villagers lobbed mortar shells on the rebels using nearby roads. There have also been heavy clashes for weeks between hardline rebels and Assad loyalists in the nearby community of Morek, Abdurrahman said.

A video uploaded by the rebels of the Jund al-Aqsa Brigade, which said it overran the village, showed them waving a black jihadi flag over the village rooftops as bearded, grinning men looted homes. The video corresponded with The Associated Press' reporting of the event.

Jund al-Aqsa Brigade, however, did not claim responsibility for the killings, nor did any other extremist group in Syria.

With files from The Associated Press, Reuters