Syria negotiations offer hope to city under siege
Deal allows aid convoys, civilians in and out of Homs
GENEVA – Hundreds of women, children and other trapped civilians could leave the rebel-held center of the Syrian city of Homs – and aid convoys would be allowed access to the besieged district – in what appears to be the first concrete accomplishment of peace talks here, the United Nations said Sunday.
“Hopefully, starting (today), women and children will be able to leave the Old City of Homs,” Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special envoy who is mediating the negotiations, told reporters here after a negotiating session with both sides.
Other civilians in the devastated area would also be “welcome to leave,” Brahimi said, but government officials first want a list of their names, apparently to be sure that no rebel fighters are among those fleeing.
In addition, Brahimi said, armed groups inside the Old City have agreed not to attack aid convoys delivering humanitarian assistance to the area, which has been under government siege for months. A convoy with food, medical supplies and other goods is awaiting the green light from Syrian officials to enter the Old City, Brahimi said.
The accords on Homs would seem to signal the kind of quick if limited success that conference organizers were seeking as confidence-building measures between the two warring sides in the almost 3-year-old conflict. The long-delayed Syrian peace conference began Wednesday in Switzerland, but Sunday was only the second face-to-face day of meetings between representatives of the government of President Bashar Assad and the U.S.-backed opposition bloc.
Also Sunday, the two sides began talking about the release of thousands of detainees held by both sides. The opposition has agreed to try to come up with a list of those in rebel custody, Brahimi said, though anti-government negotiators here have little sway with many armed factions holding hostages and other detainees.
The government and the opposition blame each other for the fact that civilians remain trapped inside central Homs and aid convoys have not been able to get in for at least six months. According to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, about 1,500 people, many of them Christians, are stranded inside the Old City, lacking sufficient food, medical supplies and other essentials.
The center of Homs, once Syria’s third-most populous city, has been largely destroyed by shelling and gunfire. Most residents of the Old City fled long ago, as the area fell under the control of armed rebels. Government troops have gradually advanced and taken several nearby neighborhoods, including the Khalidiya district, and now encircle the Old City.
Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, told reporters in Geneva that civilians leaving the Old City would be welcomed and taken care of.
This week, negotiations between the government and the opposition coalition are expected to move to the more contentious arena of how to form a transitional government, a central focus of the proceedings. The opposition views the conference as a means of forcing Assad from power. The government says Assad’s future is not up for discussion.