Syria’s warring sides agree to extend cease-fire in Old City of Homs

Syria evacuation
A Syrian rebel fighter says goodbye to a girl Feb. 12 as civilians are evacuated from a besieged district of Homs.
(Bassel Tawil / AFP/Getty Images)

DAMACUS, Syria — Both sides in the Syrian conflict have agreed to extend a cease-fire in the Old City of Homs, but relief efforts to the besieged district will not immediately resume, the United Nations’ top official in the country said Thursday.

Yacoub El Hillo, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Syria, said aid workers are concentrating on assisting more than 1,400 people who have been evacuated from the Old City since the high-profile relief operation began  Feb. 7.

“I think we need more cease-fires in the Old City,” Hilo said in a telephone interview from Homs, Syria’s third-largest city.

The U.N. official voiced the hope that humanitarian shipments into the besieged quarter would resume soon, along with the evacuation of civilians, once progress had been made in assisting the many who have already left under a U.N.-brokered agreement. Some are in need of shelter and medical care.

Among the evacuees, the Syrian government says, are more than 500 men deemed of fighting age, 16 to 54. Syrian authorities are reviewing each of their cases to determine whether  any were involved in acts of “terrorism,” a reference  to the almost 3-year-old armed rebellion against President Bashar Assad’s government. Any found to have committed violence could face judicial proceedings, the government says.

Syrian authorities have vowed to provide a fair hearing for the men, and Homs Gov. Talal Barazi has indicated that most probably would be released. But some human rights groups have expressed concern for the fate of the men.

Barazi confirmed in a statement Thursday that an agreement had been worked out with the U.N. for another three-day period for evacuating people from the Old City and sending in aid shipments.

The plight of an estimated 2,500 people trapped in the rebel-controlled Old City drew international attention last month at Syrian peace talks in Geneva.

Until the current initiative, the war-battered district had gone without shipments of food and other aid for 16 months. Some people had been trapped there for two years and needed food, medical care and other necessities. Those items smuggled into the district were exorbitantly expensive and in short supply, former residents said.

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