Syria peace talks take small step, offer hope to trapped civilians

Hundreds of trapped Syrian civilians could leave the rebel-held center of Homs, pictured in September, in what appears to be the first solid accomplishment of the Geneva peace talks.
Hundreds of trapped Syrian civilians could leave the rebel-held center of Homs, pictured in September, in what appears to be the first solid accomplishment of the Geneva peace talks.
(Nabih Bulos / For The Times )

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 tomorrow, 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 anyone fleeing is not a rebel fighter.


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 much needed 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 the two camps.

Also Sunday, the two sides also began talking about the possible 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, kidnap victims and other detainees.

The government and the opposition point the blame at each other for the fact that civilians remain trapped inside central Homs and aid convoys have not been able to access the area 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. Only a trickle of sick and elderly have been able to leave the besieged zone in recent months, the group says.

The center of Homs, once Syria’s third most populous city, has been largely destroyed in more than two years of 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.

But a contingent of armed Islamic rebels from various factions maintain control of much of the Old City. Exchanges of shelling and gunfire are frequent between rebel forces inside the Old City and government troops positioned on the periphery.

The government has accused the rebels of holding the civilians hostage as “human shields,” their presence serving to cut down on military shelling. The opposition says the civilians are reluctant to leave because they fear being killed by government forces.

Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, told reporters in Geneva that civilians leaving the Old City would be welcomed and taken care of.

“We shall provide them with shelter, we shall provide them with medicine, and we shall provide them with all the necessities of their daily life,” the Syrian deputy prime minister said during a news conference.