Syria aid teams prepare to renew Homs evacuations
DAMASCUS - Agence France-Presse
Civilians carry their belongings as they walk towards a meeting point to be evacuated from a besieged area of Homs February 9, 2014. REUTERS PhotoAid teams prepared to enter the besieged Old City of Homs in central Syria to evacuate civilians on Monday, braving fighting that saw mortar fire rain down during operations a day earlier.
A source at the Syrian Red Crescent said discussions were still underway on whether an initial three-day truce would be extended to allow the humanitarian operations to continue on Monday.
"Today we will continue the evacuation of civilians via the same routes or new ones," the source said.
"A meeting between the UN and the governor of Homs is underway. In principle, the ceasefire will be extended, and we will try to get civilians out as soon as possible," the source added.
He said aid would also be delivered to besieged neighbourhoods of the Old City of Homs and had been loaded into the buses that would evacuate civilians.
An activist in Homs said a deal to extend the truce by another 72 hours had been agreed, but there was no immediate official confirmation.
Three days of humanitarian access to Homs, parts of which have been under siege for nearly two years, began on Friday under a UN-mediated deal between the Syrian regime and rebels.
The first day of operations saw 83 civilians evacuated, with Red Crescent volunteers aiding fragile elderly women and men aboard buses waiting to take them away.
The operations continued on Saturday, but the Red Crescent said vehicles delivering aid came under fire and a driver was injured.
Mortar shell fire was also reported during the delivery, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights saying several people were killed.
Despite the fire, the Red Crescent said it was able to deliver 250 food parcels, along with hygiene kits and medicine.
Some 3,000 people are believed to be trapped in the besieged parts of Homs city, with many surviving on little more than olives and grass.
The operations resumed on Sunday, with some 600 people escaping the Old City, much of which has been devastated by brutal fighting between the regime and rebels.
Television footage broadcast by Beirut-based channel Al-Mayadeen showed exhausted and frail women, children and elderly men getting off the evacuation buses.
"We had nothing. All the children were sick, we even had nothing to drink," said one exhausted woman, her three children standing round her.
But the ceasefire was tested again on Sunday, with mortar fire hitting one besieged district and killing seven people, all of them opposition fighters, the Observatory said.
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.
Regime 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.
Humanitarian access to besieged parts of the city was one of the items on the agenda during peace talks between the regime and rebels held in Switzerland last month.
But the deal and ceasefire announced last week appeared to have been agreed outside the framework of the peace talks, which resumed for a second round in Geneva on Monday.
Meanwhile the World Food Programme (WFP), which has been involved in the Homs operation, demanded unhindered humanitarian access to all besieged areas in Syria.
"One-off convoys into besieged areas offer only a minimum of relief," said the group's executive director Ertharin Cousin.
"We need full access to people in need," he added.
Elsewhere in the country, Syrian state television reported that "terrorists" - the regime name for rebels -- had prevented the Red Crescent from delivering food and medicine to Aleppo's central prison for a fourth day.
The television said this had led "to the deaths of 20 inmates from malnutrition and lack of medicine".
An estimated 3,000 detainees, including Islamists, activists and minors are held at the prison, which has been under attack by rebels for months.
They launched a major assault last week, briefly entering the facility, but were pushed back under heavy aerial attack by regime forces.