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Middle east

Besieged civilians in Syria's Homs await UN aid

© AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-02-08

The United Nations was poised to deliver aid to desperate civilians besieged in rebel-held areas of the Syrian city of Homs on Saturday on the second day of a humanitarian truce.

The planned relief convoy comes after about 80 civilians, children, women and elderly people, who had survived 18 months under tight army blockade were evacuated from the war-battered enclave on Friday.

The Homs evacuation and aid delivery was made possible by a surprise UN-brokered deal between the government and rebel commanders on the ground to observe a three-day “humanitarian pause” in hostilities, which largely held on Friday, UN officials said.

The long-sought truce had eluded mediators in last month’s fruitless first round of peace talks between government and opposition delegations in Switzerland which are due to resume in Geneva on Monday.

The desperately needed food and medicines have been held up for months in a UN warehouse in a government-controlled area just kilometres away from the trapped civilians awaiting the ceasefire required for their safe delivery.

Even after Friday’s evacuation of a first group of civilians who wanted to leave, many more remain in need inside the enclave, including hundreds more women and children.

Activists say remaining residents have had little food for months.

“UN teams have pre-positioned food, medical and other basic supplies for immediate delivery as soon as the first group of civilians are out and we hope to send this aid on Saturday morning,” UN humanitarian coordinator for Syria Yacoub El Hillo said.

UN spokesman Farhan Haq said there had been sporadic shooting during the evacuation of civilians on Friday but that both sides broadly observed the ceasefire.

“We understand that for the most part the operation went smoothly, but there were isolated reports of gunfire heard during the day,” he said.

UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos hailed the Homs truce as a “breakthrough” and “a small but important step toward compliance with international humanitarian law,” she added.

UN spokesman Haq said the humanitarian work would continue.

“We’ll try to evacuate more civilians and deliver aid in the next few days,” Haq said.

Humanitarian mission

Friday’s evacuation included many elderly civilians, who were escorted by UN and Syrian Red Crescent staff.

An AFP correspondent reported that Red Crescent volunteers helped frail-looking elderly people wrapped in blankets to board a bus. The correspondent also reported that at least one woman was evacuated on a stretcher.

Amateur video filmed by activists in the nearby Waar area showed a man smiling as he embraced his son, in their first reunion for more than 18 months.

Saturday’s aid delivery was expected to be followed by further evacuations on Sunday, a cleric inside the rebel enclave told AFP via the Internet.

“On Sunday, we plan for many women and children to leave,” Abdul Hareth al-Khalidi said.

‘Capital of the revolution’ under continued siege

Homs was dubbed “the capital of the revolution” by activists before a bloody 2012 counter-offensive by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces recaptured much of the city.

Large areas of Homs have been reduced to rubble by the ferocious fighting.

Assad’s forces imposed a tight blockade on the remaining rebel-held areas after their 2012 assault and further tightened the noose last summer with the capture of the town of Qusayr, which cut off rebel supply lines to neighbouring Lebanon.

Divided Homs straddles a strategic crossroads on the main highways between Damascus and the main northern city of Aleppo, and the interior and the Mediterranean coast.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)
 

Date created : 2014-02-08

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