An aid convoy trying to reach a besieged rebel district in Syria’s western city of Homs came under fire on Saturday, threatening a humanitarian operation to deliver food and medicine to around 2,500 trapped people.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent said mortar fire had landed close to its convoy and shots were fired at its trucks, wounding one of its drivers.
At least nine Red Crescent and UN vehicles were holed up in the city for several hours after dark when the explosions struck, but the team managed to pull out shortly before 10pm (2000 GMT), leaving behind two damaged trucks, the Red Crescent said.
“Although the team was shelled and fired upon we managed to deliver 250 food parcels (and) 190 hygiene kits and chronic disease medicines,” the organisation said.
Syrian authorities blamed the attacks on rebels. Opposition activists, however, accused President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, who they also said were responsible for mortar attacks earlier in the day, which delayed the start of the operation.
The violence threatens to unravel a United Nations-brokered deal to allow humanitarian aid into Homs – the first concrete result of talks launched two weeks ago in Geneva to try to end the country’s nearly three-year-old conflict.
An estimated 130,000 people have been killed in the fighting, which has driven millions from their homes and devastated whole districts of Syrian cities - including Homs, a centre of protest when the 2011 uprising against Assad’s government first erupted.
At the Geneva peace talks, which resume on Monday, international mediator Lakhdar Brahimi has been pushing for agreement on aid deliveries and prisoner releases, hoping that progress on those issues could build momentum to address the far more contentious question of political transition.
But even talks over humanitarian aid have been slow, delivering only modest results, the first of which was the evacuation on Friday of 83 women, children and elderly men from the Old City of Homs. Aid workers said many showed signs of malnutrition.
Sunday is due to be the final day of a three-day ceasefire which Russia, a close ally of Assad, said had been negotiated to allow the aid to be brought in and civilians moved out.
Video footage of Saturday’s incident published by activists showed eight white cars with UN markings and a truck stopped at a narrow street corner, already strewn with rubble.
A man with a blood on his face was led into a nearby building, before a blast struck on the far side of the truck. It was not clear how much damage was caused by the explosion.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors violence in Syria, said there were reports that two Syrians had been killed and several wounded by mortar fire in Old Homs.
Syria’s opposition National Coalition said the aid operation in Homs was no substitute for lifting the siege on the rebel-held area, warning that the evacuation of civilians could be “a prelude to the regime destroying the city with the remaining residents trapped inside”.
“It is vital to remember that the regime has used similar tactics in the past to change the demographics of some areas in Syria,” the Coalition said in a statement. “It has used similar deals to buy time to strengthen its positions on the ground and to kill more civilians.”
While the aid convoy was delivering aid in Homs on Saturday, fighting continued in northern and eastern Syria.
Twenty people were killed in Aleppo by barrel bombs dropped by Syrian army helicopters, the Britain-based Observatory said.
The improvised explosives, often rolled out of the cargo holds of aircraft, cause widespread and indiscriminate damage.
Hundreds of people have been killed in such attacks in Aleppo city this year and many thousands have fled rebel-held districts, seeking shelter in government-controlled neighbourhoods or trying to cross the Turkish border.
The air offensive has also helped Assad’s forces take back some ground in Syria’s biggest city, which has been contested since the summer of 2012 when rebel forces swept in from Aleppo’s rural hinterland to take over around half the city.
Since then the army, backed by Iranian military commanders, Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia and Iraqi Shiite fighters, has taken back territory around Damascus and Homs.
Infighting between rival rebel forces, including foreign Sunni Muslim jihadis and al Qaeda-linked fighters, has also helped Assad’s counter-offensive.
Several Islamist groups have been fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an al Qaeda splinter group, across northern and eastern Syria for several weeks.
On Saturday the Britain-based Observatory reported heavy fighting in the eastern province of Deir al-Zor after the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and another Islamist group, Ahrar al-Sham, attacked ISIL, accusing it of seizing control of oil fields and other key installations.
It said at least 20 people were killed in fierce clashes in Deir al-Zor city and elsewhere in the province, which borders the Iraqi province of Anbar where militants including ISIL fighters overran two cities last month.
Syria’s uprising turned into an armed insurgency after demonstrations were put down with force and has now degenerated into a civil war pitting regional Sunni and Shiite powers against each other and destabilising the wider Middle East.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)
Date created : 2014-02-08