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A rush to evacuate as truce extended in Syria’s Homs city (AP) / 11 February 2014 Second round of peace talks in Geneva become mired in recriminations between government and opposition delegation. Aid officials rushed to evacuate more women, children and elderly from rebel-held areas that have been blockaded by government troops for more than a year in Syria’s third-largest city, Homs, after a UN-brokered ceasefire in the city was renewed for three more days on Monday. The truce, which began on Friday, has been shaken by continued shelling and shooting that prevented some residents from escaping and limited the amount of food aid officials have been able to deliver into the besieged neighbourhoods. UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos sharply criticised the two sides, saying UN and Syrian Red Crescent workers were “deliberately targeted.” The drama in Homs, where Amos said around 800 civilians have been evacuated so far, played out as activists on Monday reported new sectarian killings in Syria’s civil war. Al Qaeda-inspired rebels killed more than two dozen civilians, including an entire family, when they overran a village populated by minority Alawis on Sunday, Rami Abdurrahman of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. They also killed around 20 local fighters in the village, he said. The violence further rattled peace talks that entered their second round on Monday in Geneva — and which quickly became mired in recriminations between President Bashar Al Assad’s government and the opposition in exile. The two sides’ first face-to-face meetings adjourned 10 days ago, having achieved little. This time, the two appeared even further apart, with no immediate plans to even sit at the same table. UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi was holding separate talks with each side. “The negotiations cannot continue while the regime is stepping up its violence against the Syrian people,” opposition spokesman Louay Safi told reporters after talks with Brahimi. The opposition insists the talks’ aim is to agree on a transitional governing body that would replace Assad. But Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said the issue of Assad stepping down was not on the agenda. “Please tell those who dream of wasting our time here in such a discussion to stop it,” he told a reporter. The events of the past few days have only underscored each side’s position. The government says it is trying to defeat an extremist, Al Qaeda-style insurgency. Syria’s opposition, in turn, points to government blockades of dozens of rebel-held areas that have caused widespread hunger and sickness among civilians as proof of the cruelty of Assad’s rule. The aid operation in Homs laid bare the desperation in the besieged areas. Homs, in central Syria, was one of the first cities to rise up against Assad, and while government forces have retaken much of the city, several rebel-held districts in its historic old center have been under a suffocating siege for more than a year. Many of those evacuated since Friday “were traumatized and weak,” Amos said in a statement. They reported “terrible conditions at the field hospital in the Old City, where the equipment is basic, there are no medicines and people are in urgent need of medical attention,” she said. She said around 800 had been evacuated since Friday, though the governor of Homs province put the number at around 1,070, including 460 evacuated on Monday. Under the UN-brokered truce, the government refused to allow males between the ages of 15 and 55 to leave, presuming them to be fighters. Those leaving are women, children and elderly. Amos said the truce had been extended for three days. The original truce ran from Friday to Sunday, but the continued shelling and shooting between the two sides severely limited efforts. Eleven people were killed by the fighting. Over the weekend, some women and elderly tried to leave but were unable to make their way through checkpoints to evacuation buses, according to Khaled Erksoussi, the head of operations of the Syrian Red Crescent. He said some food aid was brought into the areas over the weekend — “but not the quantity we had hoped for” — and none made it in on Monday. On Sunday, residents rushed through gunfire to reach UN vehicles carrying food that did make it in. Then they fought over the oil, sugar and other supplies, according to one activist in Homs who uses the nickname Eman Al Homsy for security reasons. “They didn’t care about death; the hunger was killing them,” Eman said. Erksoussi echoed the worries of activists who said they fear that once civilians are evacuated, fighting will only escalate. “We know that not all civilians will leave, but the fighting parties will claim that they did and step up the shelling and shooting,” he said by phone from Damascus. Around a quarter-million people in 40 districts besieged by government forces have been cut off from humanitarian aid for months, said Ertharin Cousin, executive director of the UN’s World Food Program. In the Yarmouk area, on Damascus’ southern fringe, activists estimate over 100 people have died from hunger-related illness and a lack of medical aid because of a year-long blockade. The new sectarian killings came in the village of Maan, north of the central city of Hama. Hard-line Islamic fighters overran it on Sunday after mortars from the village hit rebels on a nearby road, according to Abdurrahman of the Syrian Observatory. On Monday, the Al Qaeda linked Nusra Front announced it had pushed out Islamic State rivals from the eastern province of Deir Al Zour after four days of clashes, the Syrian Observatory said. Meanwhile, a third batch of Syria’s chemical weapons material was shipped out of the country on a Norwegian cargo vessel, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said Monday. The Hague, Netherlands-based OPCW, which is overseeing Syria’s attempts to destroy its chemical weapons, said an unspecified amount of chemicals used in making weapons has also been destroyed inside Syria. For more news from Khaleej Times, follow us on Facebook at facebook.com/khaleejtimes , and on Twitter at @khaleejtimes Continue reading →
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