Civilians die despite truce

By Ruth Sherlock, Magdy Samaan

Aid workers come under fire blamed on hardline Assad loyalists in Syrian city of Homs.

Aid workers braved mortar and small arms fire to evacuate Syrian civilians from a besieged area of the city of Homs, tenuously keeping alive a deal seen as central to the peace talks that were to resume in Geneva today.

Several hundred women, children and elderly men were brought out of the Old City in Homs on the third and final day of a supposed ceasefire, brokered by the United Nations.

Talal Barazi, the province's governor, said that 420 "besieged people" were rescued.

A deal to bring some civilians out of the Old City - and allow essential aid to enter - was struck in principle at the Geneva peace talks last month. The details of a three-day truce were agreed upon only last week.

In the event, the ceasefire was broken on two of the three days. On Sunday and yesterday, aid workers from the UN and volunteers in the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) came under mortar and sniper fire. These breaches of the ceasefire cost up to nine civilian lives and dozens were wounded.

Video footage appeared to show the flash and boom of mortar rounds slamming into the ground just metres from the vehicles of an aid convoy. The bombardment destroyed two trucks and killed five civilians who had left their homes to receive food and medical supplies.

"I don't care about Geneva. But I am using whatever chance I can to get aid to those poor people [inside the siege]," said Khaled Erksoussi, the head of operations for SARC.

"Any sane person would have cancelled the operation after [Sunday]. But we we know there are people in need inside."

Yesterday, aid workers tried again to enter the Old City - and again came under heavy fire.

Video footage showed hundreds of people, dishevelled and gaunt after 600 days of living under siege, shuffling over debris along a street devastated by fighting. They headed towards UN vehicles that had arrived to evacuate them. A mortar exploded close by, causing the civilians to run, in panic towards the armoured UN vehicles, with some jumping inside headfirst.

In a statement that cannot be independently confirmed, opposition activists said that four civilians were killed as they were waiting to be evacuated.

These vehicles brought small amounts of aid into the Old City, but the trucks carrying larger quantities were unable to enter.

The Syrian Government delegation, led again by Walid Muallem, the Foreign Minister, has arrived in Geneva for the talks due to restart today.

Lakhdar Barhimi, the chief UN negotiator, hopes this round will focus on finding a solution to the conflict.

But the failure to maintain the Homs ceasefire shows the size of the challenge.

One aid worker said the shelling on the Old City came from a district of Homs that is staunchly loyal to President Bashar al-Assad's regime. The source blamed the National Defence Force, a pro-regime militia.

The Syrian Government built up the NDF as a volunteer army. However, reports suggest the regime is now losing control of these militiamen.

Pro-regime and NDF Facebook pages denounced the ceasefire and the decision to allow aid into the Old City, arguing that it would "feed the terrorists".

- Daily Telegraph UK

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