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.
“Never seen” before
A World Food Program aid director on the ground in Syria described to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Tuesday the desperate situation of civilians in war-ravaged Homs – something he said he had “never seen” before in his career.
“Nobody is able to actually feed themselves, feed their children, feed their families, with anything but the weed, the grass that they can pick on the side of the curb and what little that they can eke out from what they’ve saved over time,” Matthew Hollingworth, Syria director for the World Food Programme, said on the phone from Homs.
“They’re living in tunnels, they’re living in basements of apartment buildings which are otherwise destroyed, basements of shopping centers.”
“They are barely, and they have been barely, existing,” he said. “I’ve never seen levels of deprivation such as this.”
The United Nations is taking advantage of a rare, and very shaky ceasefire to deliver aid to civilians in the war-ravaged Syrian city of Homs.
LA Times/ CNN
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