Syria agrees to evacuate civilians from besieged Homs area, provide aid

McClatchy Foreign StaffJanuary 26, 2014 

— 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 the evacuation of women and children trapped there, Syria’s deputy foreign minister said Sunday.

If the aid convoy and the evacuation take place as planned, it would be the first concrete development from the peace talks unfolding here. The U.N.’s special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, who is mediating the talks, said a convoy could go in as early 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 the evacuation of women and children from 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 United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which provides aid to Palestinians. Gunness said that 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 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 emailed to reporters.

Asked about the situation in Yarmouk, Meqdad said as many as 500 food packets had been delivered, and that more had not been delivered because the camp “is occupied entirely by armed groups.” When UNRWA 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 lay with the government. “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 said in his emailed statement.

The situation in Homs could be just as difficult. The Syrian government has long claimed that the people still in the old city area are primarily armed rebels and their families, and that some of the civilians are being kept there against their will.

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 non-combatants. 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 also denied that government forces were shelling Homs, as local anti-government activists had reported. The activists said government forces had 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’s comments came during his first extended encounter with reporters since the peace talks began in earnest on Friday and his comments were the subject of amusement among Western officials monitoring the talks here. One diplomat who briefed reporters under a 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, charged by U.N. investigators as likely responsible for many crimes against humanity, “is the warm heart of the people.”

Brahimi opened the talks Friday with humanitarian crisis as the top agenda item. The two sides have been meeting face to face since Saturday in a conference room at the U.N.’s Geneva headquarters, but Brahimi said he primarily met with the two sides separately on Sunday. Other than the aid deliveries to Homs and the evacuation of the civilians there, they spoke at length over opposition requests to the government to release women, children and the elderly in detention.

Meqdad disputed the premise of the request. “I categorically deny there are any children detained,” he said. If children had been arrested on the battlefield, they “should not go to jail, but a nurturing place,” he said.

He also disputed the content of a list of people allegedly held by the Syrian government, which he said Syria received from “a friendly country” – presumably Russia. He said 60 to 70 percent of the names on it were “people who never entered any prison” and 20 per cent were people who’d been imprisoned but had been freed.

The toughest discussion, starting Monday, will be on the topic of creating a transitional government with full executive powers and control of all security services, as called for in the June 2012 joint statement by the United States and Russia. Syria says only the Syrian people can choose a successor to Assad, while the opposition coalition says reaching an agreement on a group to succeed Assad is the most important issue at the talks.

Email: rgutman@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @roygutmanmcc

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