Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Civilians removed from rebel territory

Move made before Syrian peace talks

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BEIRUT -- The first civilians were evacuated Friday from a rebel-held area of the Syrian city of Homs after more than a year and a half of struggling to survive under a government blockade, a deal that could bolster confidence ahead of a second round of peace talks.

Aid workers said they had heard harrowing stories from the 83 people who were evacuated from the besieged Old City -- with some recounting how they had been surviving on as little as a spoonful of wheat a day and others saying they had been forced to eat weeds.

A U.N.-brokered agreement for a three-day cease-fire, to allow civilians out and then aid to come in, came just days ahead of the resumption of peace talks in Geneva. The Syrian government confirmed Friday it would attend.

The first round, which marked the first time the two sides sat at the negotiating table during the three-year conflict, failed to deliver tangible results.

Western diplomats and aid workers gave the agreement a muted welcome, while urging the Syrian government to allow unfettered humanitarian access.

State television showed civilians, largely elderly people and women, wrapped in blankets and being ushered onto buses. One evacuee was taken in an ambulance.

The 83 people the UN said were evacuated to places of their choosing are a fraction of the 2,500 people it estimates are holed up in Homs's Old City. Humanitarian workers said they handed the evacuees juice, high-energy biscuits and ready-to-eat meals as they left the city.

Dina Elkassaby, a spokeswoman for the World Food Program, said its staff reported many of the evacuees were in "very, very bad shape," with children showing signs of malnutrition.

"One elderly man told us he'd just been eating a spoonful of bulgur wheat a day. He broke down crying and said his wife had passed away a week earlier," she said. "He was sure lack of food meant she wasn't able to fight the illness."

Supplies of food and other essentials to areas of the Old City have been stymied since June 2012, with the opposition accusing the government of using starvation tactics to crush support for rebels. Areas of the Damascus suburbs are under similar strangleholds.

Residents say they have survived on little but olives and what could be scavenged from abandoned houses. Reports of deaths from starvation remain unconfirmed.

A total of 200,000 Syrian citizens are living under siege, according the United Nations. The vast majority are cut off by government forces, though rebels have been criticized for using similar tactics in areas of northern Syria.

Only women, children younger than 15 and adults older than 55 were allowed to leave Friday. Syrian state television reported hundreds more were expected to be evacuated in coming days.

Residents said some had decided to stay so as not to split up families and because of fears about what might happen to them if they left. Others are holding out for food aid to be delivered inside the besieged areas, as outlined in the second stage of the deal. The World Food Program said it had 500 food parcels and 500 bags of wheat flour in Homs poised for delivery, which it said it hopes could start as soon as today. Rebels say the deal requires they submit a list of names of those who have chosen to stay in the area before aid is delivered.

"The demands of the civilians were never to leave their homes nor their lands," said Waleed al-Fares, an activist in the Old City. He said one group of civilians had come under fire while trying to leave, while the United Nations confirmed "isolated reports of gunfire" during evacuations.


-- The Washington Post

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 8, 2014 A26

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