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Syria relents on aid, evacuations from weary Homs

| Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014, 8:45 p.m.
REUTERS
A man carries a bag amid damage and debris in the besieged area of Homs January 26, 2014. REUTERS/Thaer Al Khalidiya (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT)

GENEVA — The Syrian government has agreed to allow the first aid convoy in more than a year to enter the besieged old-city quarter of Homs and to permit women and children trapped there to evacuate, Syria's deputy foreign minister said on Sunday.

If the aid convoy and the evacuation take place as planned, it would be the first concrete development from peace talks here. The United Nations' special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, who is mediating the talks, said a convoy could go in as soon as Monday if local agreements can be worked out.

Faisal Meqdad, Syria's deputy foreign minister, said his government was ready for the aid shipment to take place, but he emphasized that his government believed that allowing women and children to leave the old-city neighborhood was the more significant of the agreements. As many as 3,000 people may be trapped in the neighborhood, which has been under siege for 18 months.

There are many ways the agreement could fail. A previous agreement to deliver 200 food packets to the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus last weekend has yet to be completed, said Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which provides aid to Palestinians. Gunness said only 138 of the packets have been delivered since Jan. 18. One packet, Gunness said, would feed a family of eight for 10 days. An estimated 18,000 people are believed to be trapped in Yarmouk, which is controlled by rebels and sealed off by militias loyal to Assad.

“Assurances given by the authorities have not been backed up by action on the ground,” Gunness said in a statement.

Asked about the situation in Yarmouk, Meqdad said as many as 500 food packets had been delivered, and more had not been because the camp “is occupied entirely by armed groups.” When the Relief and Works Agency attempted to deliver aid, “they started shooting at the aid convoy,” he said.

Gunness' email did not blame either side for the delivery difficulties, though he implied that the biggest burden for carrying out the agreement was the government's.

“For the sake of alleviating the grave suffering in Yarmouk, Syrian authorities and all parties to the Syria conflict that are present in and around Yarmouk must support and facilitate humanitarian access to civilians,” he wrote in his emailed statement.

Brahimi said that as part of the evacuation plan, the Syrian government was insisting that the opposition coalition provide a list of all the men in the besieged part of Homs, so that it could sort out combatants from noncombatants. But it was not clear that the rebels in the besieged district would agree to provide it, given that it might be used to single them out for retaliation.

Meqdad denied that government forces were shelling Homs, as local anti-government activists had reported. The activists said government forces used mortars and heavy machine-gun fire to destroy homes and wound civilians.

“It is a big lie that the government is shelling” Homs, he said. “The armed groups are shelling, and they report it as the government.” He said the government had “not fired a single shell” at Homs.

Meqdad spoke during his first extended encounter with reporters since peace talks began in earnest on Friday, and his comments were the subject of amusement among Western officials monitoring the talks. One diplomat who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity said Meqdad's assertion that the rebels were shelling themselves in Homs would be believed only by Syria's President Bashar Assad.

Meqdad insisted that Assad's government, which U.N. investigators consider likely to be responsible for many crimes against humanity, “is the warm heart of the people.”

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