Women and children allowed to leave Homs

03:21, Jan 27 2014
TRAPPED: A child clears damage and debris in the besieged area of Homs January 26.

Syrian deputy foreign minister Faysal Mekdad says the Assad government will allow women and children to leave besieged city of Homs immediately if rebels give them passage.

"I assure you that if the armed terorists in Homs allow women and children to leave the Old City of Homs, we will allow them every access, not only that, we will provide them with shelter, medicines and all that is needed," he said after talks in Geneva with the Syrian opposition.

"We are ready to allow any humanitarian aid to enter into the city through the agreements and arrangements made with the UN," he said.

But the agreement was the only real sign of progress on the second day of face-to-face talks between Syria's warring parties, deepening doubts over tougher political negotiations which are due to follow.

Government and opposition delegations discussed aid and prisoner releases during a morning session in Geneva which had aimed to build some kind of trust between the sides who are implacably at odds over the fate of President Bashar al-Assad.

However, they disputed even the basic facts, and the opposition delegate told Reuters that international mediator Lakhdar Brahimi met the two parties separately later in the day.


These sessions would prepare for the more contentious political talks on the 2012 "Geneva 1" accord, the delegate, Ahmad Ramadan, told Reuters.

Geneva 1 called for the establishment of a transitional governing body in Syria by mutual consent. The opposition says that means Assad must go, a demand the government has dismissed out of hand, adding to pessimism over whether the Geneva talks can make much progress on ending the civil war.

Following the first face-to-face talks on Saturday and Sunday morning, Ramadan said the government side had yet to respond to opposition demands to release thousands of prisoners taken during almost three years of conflict and to allow humanitarian aid into the city of Homs.

The talks were further complicated by Mekdad's contention that photos published last week by Britain's Guardian newspaper of some 11,000 corpses, purportedly tortured by Syrian government forces in custody, were "categorically" fabricated.

Russia, one of the talks' sponsors, acknowledged that positions were polarised, emotions were on edge and the situation remained extremely grave.

Underlining the immense difficulty of implementing even local agreements on the ground, a UN agency trying to deliver aid to a besieged district of Damascus said state checkpoint officials had hampered its work, despite government assurances it would allow the distributions.

In Geneva opposition figures said they presented a list of 47,000 detainees whose release they are seeking, as well as 2500 women and children whose freedom they say is a priority.

But Damascus denied having even got the list. Syrian TV cited a government source as saying Damascus was ready to release any civilians "but the coalition of what is known as the opposition has refrained from presenting a list".

Homs was one of the early centres of protest against Assad's rule which erupted in 2011 before Syria slid into civil war. Since the start of the crisis more than 130,000 people have been killed, two million have become refugees and around half the country needs aid, the United Nations says.

Humanitarian efforts in Syria have been hindered by fighting and by combatants on both sides, who often try to block deliveries to areas held by their opponents.

The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) complained about problems in delivering deliver food and other aid to Yarmouk, a district of Damascus that is home to impoverished Syrians and Palestinians despite government assurances.

"The agency is extremely disappointed that - at this point - the assurances given by authorities have not been backed by action on the ground to facilitate regular, rapid entry into Yarmouk," spokesman Chris Gunness said.

Faced with finding common ground between two intractably opposed parties, Brahimi had dedicated the first two days of talks to humanitarian issues, hoping to create a platform on which to build the far tougher political talks.

He plans to start addressing what he has called the core issue of the talks - implementing the June 2012 accord.

Brahimi described Saturday's sessions as a good beginning but conceded that little progress was achieved and government delegates took issue with his strategy of addressing specific issues instead of the overall conflict.

"The other side came here to discuss a small problem here or there. We came to discuss the future of Syria," presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban said outside the United Nations headquarters in Geneva.

"We did not come here to bring relief to a region here or a region there. We came here to restore safety and security to our country," she told reporters.

Shaaban said the government would not veto any topic and was ready to discuss the 2012 Geneva accord, but that "doesn't mean every word of Geneva is sacred".

The statement was issued 18 months ago under very different circumstances, Shaaban said, also accusing the opposition of focusing exclusively on demands for a transfer of power and ignoring its call for an end to violence.

"Geneva is not the Koran, it's not the Gospel," she told reporters. "Geneva was issued in June 2012. We are now January 26, 2014. The ground has changed. We change according to what this reality requires."

In the summer of 2012 rebel forces took control of much of Aleppo, Syria's biggest city, and were challenging Assad's forces on the edge of Damascus.

Since then, backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and Iranian military commanders, Assad's forces have halted the rebel advances and consolidated control over the centre of the country, although there is little sign of them retaking swaths of rebel-held territory in the east.

Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoabi said there was no chance of Assad surrendering power.

"If anybody thinks or believes that there is a possibility for what is called the stepping down of President Bashar al-Assad, they live in a mythical world and let them stay in Alice in Wonderland."