UN declares chaotic Homs evacuation a success, presses for similar access elsewhere in Syria


McClatchy Foreign Staff

The United Nations’ special envoy on Syria, Lakdhar Brahimi, called the chaotic humanitarian cease-fire that broke the 600-day siege of the old city district of Homs “a success” on Tuesday and appealed for similar deals to allow the delivery of aid and the evacuation of civilians from other areas where Syria’s warring sides are keeping food and medical care from those in need.

At least 11 people died when mortar rounds struck near U.N. aid convoys during the cease-fire, which has been extended through Wednesday, but in spite of the fire – U.N. officials refused to say who they believe was responsible – 10 busloads of civilians had been evacuated.

Christiane Berthiaume, the spokeswoman for the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration, said 1,150 people had been evacuated from Homs since the cease-fire went into affect there on Friday. That’s nearly half the 2,500 civilians who were believed to remain inside the old district.

The largest single group of evacuees, according to Berthiaume, were men between ages 18 and 55. They totaled 465 and were submitted to a special vetting by Syrian authorities to determine if they were rebel fighters. As of late Tuesday, 152 had been released. The remainder were being questioned at a school on the outskirts of Homs. Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said UNHCR officials were not present in the room as Syrian authorities were questioning the men, but that each was spoken to afterward.

The other evacuees were 124 elderly people, 308 children under age 18, and 252 women.

Brahimi said U.N. officials both in Geneva and in Damascus were working to persuade the Syrian government and the opposition to agree to lifting sieges at other locations. He said such an agreement “augurs good faith between the two parties.”

“I think the will is there but the areas where to start is a matter that is not clear,” he said.

Besides Homs, other areas besieged by Syrian government forces include the Damascus suburbs of Eastern Ghouta, Moadamiyeh and Darayya, and the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp inside Damascus. Areas besieged by rebels include the towns Az Zahraa and Nubul in Aleppo province and Fua in Idlib province.

Of the more than 240,000 civilians trapped by the fighting, about 45,000 are besieged by opposition forces with the remainder by government forces, or militias, loyal to President Bashar Assad, according to senior U.N. and U.S. officials.

“This successful evacuation of some of the most vulnerable from the Old City of Homs represents an important glimmer of hope that humanitarian principles can prevail in this conflict and that dialogue is possible,” William Lacy Swing, the IOM’s director-general, told McClatchy.

Among the items that had been delivered to Homs in recent days were enough medicines to serve 2,000 people for three months and 3,600 doses of polio vaccines, Tarik Jasarevic, a World Health Organization official, told McClatchy.

Elisabeth Byrs, the spokeswoman for the World Food Program, enough food to feed 1,550 people for a month had been delivered, along with 1.5 metric tons of wheat flour.

Zarocostas is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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