BEIRUT -- Dozens of Syrian civilians trapped in the old quarter of the besieged city of Homs were evacuated Friday by United Nations aid workers who had access to the area for the first time in almost 18 months.
Syrian state television showed a series of buses entering the Old City of Homs – which has been reduced to rubble in heavy fighting between government soldiers and rebels that began in late 2011 – to evacuate about 70 residents, many of whom appeared to be elderly and emaciated.
The evacuation was the first phase of a U.N.-brokered deal that’s scheduled to see food distributed in the district Saturday.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al Mikdad told state television that the government was “very happy” with the evacuations – which were supervised by the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration – and the planned provision of aid.
Under the terms of the deal, all men ages of 15 to 55 in the district were to register with the government, lay down their weapons and become “normalized,” a term that wasn’t further defined. Those conditions worried some human rights activists, who expressed concern the men would be imprisoned or otherwise punished if they registered.
But as the afternoon progressed, it became clear that few fighting-age men remained in the old city. A rebel fighter reached by phone said any rebels had fled before the agreement.
The fighters “had already left before the regime and international community arrived,” said Abu Omar al Homsi, who’s fought repeatedly on the front lines but is now in Lebanon. “Bab al Amr and the Old City have been destroyed for over one year,” he said, referring to another Homs district. “The only resistance in Homs was men defending their homes and family.”
Reaching a deal to provide aid in the Old City had been the subject of failed negotiations when the Syrian government and opposition representatives met at the end of January in Geneva. Officials hope that the new deal will improve the atmosphere of talks scheduled to begin Monday.
Although some estimates had put the number of civilians and fighters trapped in the nearly completely surrounded area at around 2,500, a top Syrian official said his government expected only a few hundred people to be still inside.
“We are ready today to receive any number, even if it exceeds 400, but according to the United Nations yesterday the expected number is 200, or it could be lower,” Homs Gov. Talal Barrazi told Syrian state television. “We hope this first step will succeed and will continue tomorrow and after tomorrow and so on, to ensure safe exit to all civilians who want to leave the Old City.”
As the first batch of civilians were crossing to the buses – which were covered in the flags of the U.N. migration organization – a sniper opened fire on the group, wounding one man, who could be seen on television being treated by medics. Syrian officials claimed that rebels had broken the cease-fire, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-rebel activist group, said the shots came from government lines.
The civilians were taken to a series of centers in nearby areas managed by the U.N. World Food Program and Syrian Arab Red Crescent to be fed and given medical care.
One official from the World Food Program tweeted that initial reports were of severe malnutrition, disease and worse.
“People brought out of Homs today tell of terrible conditions over the past months; forced to eat roots and weeds,” tweeted Jonathan Dumont, a media official for the program.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency distributed food parcels in the besieged area of Yarmouk in Damascus again on Friday, the ninth straight day of such deliveries. Agency spokesman Chris Gunness said that only 179 parcels were delivered – the agency has been averaging more than 700 a day – apparently because residents of the area assumed that Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, would be a day off.
Gunness said a polio vaccination program that’s expected to reach 10,000 of Yarmouk’s estimated remaining population of 18,000 continued Friday as scheduled.