United Nations workers talk with rebel fighters in the besieged district of Homs, on February 8, 2014
United Nations workers talk with rebel fighters in the besieged district of Homs, on February 8, 2014 © Bassel Tawil - AFP
United Nations workers talk with rebel fighters in the besieged district of Homs, on February 8, 2014
Last updated: February 9, 2014

Dozens of Syrian civilians evacuated from Homs

Aid teams evacuated hundreds of exhausted civilians from besieged Homs city Sunday, as Syria's regime and rebels again accused each other of violating a truce ahead of new peace talks.

The evacuation of around 600 of the 3,000 trapped people came as representatives from both sides converged on Geneva.

Sunday's evacuation was the second in three days after a UN-brokered truce for besieged districts of Syria's third city began on Friday.

Five men were killed when one besieged district was hit by mortar fire during Sunday's evacuation, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

They were the latest deaths in a nearly three-year conflict that has killed 136,000 people and displaced millions.

The Observatory and the Syrian Red Crescent said some 600 people had been evacuated from the Old City of Homs on Sunday.

The Red Crescent said on Facebook "around 600 people evacuated today, registration is still ongoing".

"We managed to get 60 food parcels & 1500Kg of flour inside old city."

The Observatory said 611 were brought out -- "210 women, 180 children, 91 men over 55 years old and 130 young men who surrendered to Syrian authorities under UN supervision," adding the men "will be released soon".

Television footage showed women, children and elderly men getting off the evacuation buses.

They appeared visibly exhausted and frail, in a video broadcast by Beirut-based channel Al-Mayadeen.

The civilians were aided by UN staff and Syrian Red Crescent volunteers amid a strong Syrian army presence.

"We had nothing. All the children were sick, we even had nothing to drink," said one exhausted woman, her three children standing round her.

State television said the operation took place under fire from "armed terrorist groups" -- regime terminology for rebels.

But the Britain-based Observatory echoed claims by activists that at least five people were killed in shelling that targeted the besieged district of Qarabis.

Activists accused pro-regime militiamen in neighbourhoods bordering the besieged districts, who opposed the truce, of firing the mortar rounds.

Shelling also targeted an aid convoy on Saturday in an attack that killed five residents and wounded 20, the Observatory said.

UN Resident Coordinator Yaacub El Hillo denounced the latest attack, saying the "ceasefire was violated in a hateful way," without apportioning blame.

'A glimmer of hope'

Sunday's evacuation was the second after 83 people were brought out on Friday's first day of the truce.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres on Sunday paid tribute to the Red Crescent and UN volunteers.

"This shows that even in the darkest of nights it is possible to offer a glimmer of hope to people in desperate need of assistance," he said.

Iran, a key ally of President Bashar al-Assad's regime, hailed the evacuation operation, the foreign ministry saying it could improve the humanitarian situation.

Activists said on Sunday the truce has been extended by 72 hours and that more people would be evacuated on Monday.

Homs, much of which has been reduced to rubble, was dubbed "the capital of the revolution" by activists before a bloody 2012 offensive by regime forces recaptured much of the city.

On Sunday, the regime delegation and members of the opposition National Coalition arrived for the second round of Geneva II, sources close to the delegations told AFP.

Foreign Minister Walid Muallem again heads the government delegation.

It was not yet clear if Coalition chief Ahmad Jarba will be in the opposition delegation.

Ahead of Monday's resumption of talks, Muallem met UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, a source close to his delegation said.

Brahimi is scheduled to hold separate sessions on Monday, with the opposition in the morning and the regime delegation in the afternoon.

It will then be decided whether to hold a joint session on Tuesday or not, an AFP journalist said.

The warring sides seem far from compromise, however.

While the regime insists that the talks focus on fighting "terrorism", the opposition demands the priority be agreement on a transition that excludes Assad.

On the ground on Sunday, at least 25 members of Assad's Alawite sect were killed by Islamist fighters in the Maan area of Hama province, the Observatory said.

It said most of the dead were pro-regime militiamen, but state television reported a "massacre" of 10 women.

And in the Palestinian camp of Yarmuk in southern Damascus, besieged since last June, a man and a woman died of malnutrition, it said.

Since the blockade began, some 80 people have died because of food and medical shortages, the Britain-based Observatory estimates.

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