December 19, 2014
Syria starts evacuating civilians from besieged Homs center
Syria began evacuating civilians from a besieged area of Homs today while Russia announced that Syria's warring parties had agreed a three-day ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid in to those who remain.
The first bus carrying 11 weary-looking evacuees, accompanied by Syrian Arab Red Crescent officials, arrived at a meeting point outside Homs as government soldiers stood by. The aid group expected 200 people to leave.
Another person was brought out by ambulance from the Old City district where activists say 2,500 people have been under siege for more than a year, hungry and malnourished.
Russia said a three-day ceasefire had been agreed in Homs, which was one of the first cities to erupt in protest against President Bashar al-Assad nearly three years ago and where street after street has been destroyed in heavy fighting between Assad's forces and rebels seeking his overthrow.
"It is foreseen that all children, women, men under age 55, as well as wounded people, can leave the combat zone without obstacle," Russia's Foreign Ministry said.
It said Syrian authorities had announced that evacuees would be provided with medical treatment and shelter. "Those residents of Old Homs who prefer to remain will be sent the necessary humanitarian aid," the ministry said.
Moscow, which has supported and armed Assad throughout the civil war, hailed the Homs deal as a "landmark agreement".
US officials were doubtful when the deal was announced on Thursday, saying they feared for the fate of anyone who moved from rebel areas into government control. "We have reason on the basis of history to be very skeptical," US ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said.
Rebels have rejected similar offers to evacuate women and children in the past because of concerns about what might happen to any men, including fighters, who are left behind. Dozens of men were detained and disappeared after a deal last year reached in Mouadamiya, west of Damascus.