Archive for February 11th, 2014

A rush to evacuate as truce extended in Syria city

February 11, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — Aid officials rushed to evacuate more women, children and elderly from rebel-held areas that have been blockaded by government troops for more than a year in Syria’s third-largest city, Homs, after a U.N.-brokered cease-fire in the city was renewed for three more days Monday.

The truce, which began Friday, has been shaken by continued shelling and shooting that prevented some residents from escaping and limited the amount of food aid officials have been able to deliver into the besieged neighborhoods.

U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos sharply criticized the two sides, saying U.N. and Syrian Red Crescent workers were “deliberately targeted.” The drama in Homs, where Amos said around 800 civilians have been evacuated so far, played out as activists on Monday reported new sectarian killings in Syria’s civil war.

Al-Qaida-inspired rebels killed more than two dozen civilians, including an entire family, when they overran a village populated by minority Alawites on Sunday, Rami Abdurrahman of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. They also killed around 20 local fighters in the village, he said.

The violence further rattled peace talks that entered their second round Monday in Geneva — and which quickly became mired in recriminations between President Bashar Assad’s government and the opposition in exile.

The two sides’ first face-to-face meetings adjourned 10 days ago, having achieved little. This time, the two appeared even further apart, with no immediate plans to even sit at the same table. U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi was holding separate talks with each side.

“The negotiations cannot continue while the regime is stepping up its violence against the Syrian people,” opposition spokesman Louay Safi told reporters after talks with Brahimi. The opposition insists the talks’ aim is to agree on a transitional governing body that would replace Assad.

But Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said the issue of Assad stepping down was not on the agenda. “Please tell those who dream of wasting our time here in such a discussion to stop it,” he told a reporter.

The events of the past few days have only underscored each side’s position. The government says it is trying to defeat an extremist, al-Qaida-style insurgency. Syria’s opposition, in turn, points to government blockades of dozens of rebel-held areas that have caused widespread hunger and sickness among civilians as proof of the cruelty of Assad’s rule.

The aid operation in Homs laid bare the desperation in the besieged areas. Homs, in central Syria, was one of the first cities to rise up against Assad, and while government forces have retaken much of the city, several rebel-held districts in its historic old center have been under a suffocating siege for more than a year.

Many of those evacuated since Friday “were traumatized and weak,” Amos said in a statement. They reported “terrible conditions at the field hospital in the Old City, where the equipment is basic, there are no medicines and people are in urgent need of medical attention,” she said.

She said around 800 had been evacuated since Friday, though the governor of Homs province put the number at around 1,070, including 460 evacuated on Monday. Under the U.N.-brokered truce, the government refused to allow males between the ages of 15 and 55 to leave, presuming them to be fighters. Those leaving are women, children and elderly.

Amos said the truce had been extended for three days. The original truce ran from Friday to Sunday, but the continued shelling and shooting between the two sides severely limited efforts. Eleven people were killed by the fighting.

Over the weekend, some women and elderly tried to leave but were unable to make their way through checkpoints to evacuation buses, according to Khaled Erksoussi, the head of operations of the Syrian Red Crescent.

He said some food aid was brought into the areas over the weekend — “but not the quantity we had hoped for” — and none made it in on Monday. On Sunday, residents rushed through gunfire to reach U.N. vehicles carrying food that did make it in. Then they fought over the oil, sugar and other supplies, according to one activist in Homs who uses the nickname Eman al-Homsy for security reasons.

“They didn’t care about death; the hunger was killing them,” Eman said. Erksoussi echoed the worries of activists who said they fear that once civilians are evacuated, fighting will only escalate. “We know that not all civilians will leave, but the fighting parties will claim that they did and step up the shelling and shooting,” he said by phone from Damascus.

Around a quarter-million people in 40 districts besieged by government forces have been cut off from humanitarian aid for months, said Ertharin Cousin, executive director of the U.N.’s World Food Program. In the Yarmouk area, on Damascus’ southern fringe, activists estimate over 100 people have died from hunger-related illness and a lack of medical aid because of a year-long blockade.

At the United Nations, Russia threatened to veto Western efforts to push through a Security Council resolution that would raise the prospect of sanctions against Syria unless the government gives unrestricted access to deliver humanitarian aid.

Both Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin and China’s U.N. ambassador were no-shows at a meeting Monday to discuss the Western and Arab-backed resolution. The proposed resolution, obtained by the Associated Press, puts most of the blame for the humanitarian crisis on the Syrian government.

The new sectarian killings came in the village of Maan, north of the central city of Hama. Hard-line Islamic fighters overran it Sunday after mortars from the village hit rebels on a nearby road, according to Abdurrahman of the Syrian Observatory.

At least 25 of the victims were civilians, including an extended family of 11 — a man, his wife, and their sons and daughters — along with eight other women and six men, Abdurrahman told The Associated Press. Another 20 killed were village fighters defending their homes, he said. The ages of the civilians were not known. He said he obtained details on the killings from residents of nearby villages.

The villagers are predominantly Alawites, a Shiite offshoot sect to which Assad belongs and which is a pillar of support for his rule. The Syrian state news agency called the killings a “massacre” and said 10 women were among the dead. Information minister Omran al-Zoubi said the slain included four disabled residents. A Syrian army statement put the toll at 42 dead.

The rebels who overran the village belonged to two hardline factions, Jund al-Aqsa and Ahrar al-Sham. Both uploaded videos showing their fighters in the village, though neither claimed responsibility for any killings.

In Jund al-Aqsa’s video, its fighters wave a black flag over the village and are seen grinning as they loot a house. One fighter shouts against Assad and against Alawites, whom extremists see as heretics to be killed. The bloodied body of one man in fatigues, apparently a village fighter, is shown lying on the ground.

The videos corresponded with the AP’s reporting of the event. Jund al-Aqsa has sworn allegiance to the Islamic State in the Iraq and the Levant, a breakaway group from al-Qaida. Ahrar al-Sham is a conservative Muslim rebel group.

Islamic extremists — including foreign fighters and Syrian rebels who have taken up hard-line al-Qaida-style ideologies — have played an increasingly prominent role among the rebel fighters fighting forces loyal to Assad. But extremists have also turned on each other, with some Islamic factions battling the Islamic State, which they accuse of trying to control the rebellion.

On Monday, the Nusra Front announced it had pushed out Islamic State rivals from the eastern province of Deir al-Zour after four days of clashes, the Syrian Observatory said. Meanwhile, a third batch of Syria’s chemical weapons material was shipped out of the country on a Norwegian cargo vessel, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said Monday. The Hague, Netherlands-based OPCW, which is overseeing Syria’s attempts to destroy its chemical weapons, said an unspecified amount of chemicals used in making weapons has also been destroyed inside Syria.

Syria has missed several deadlines on the timetable to have its chemical weapons eradicated by June 30 but insists it will meet the final deadline.

AP correspondents Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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600 evacuated from blockaded Syrian city of Homs

February 09, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — Hundreds of civilians were evacuated Sunday from the besieged Syrian city of Homs, braving gunmen spraying bullets and lobbing mortar shells to flee as part of a rare three-day truce to relieve a choking blockade. Dozens were wounded as they fled.

The cease-fire came as Syrian officials arrived in Switzerland for a new round of talks with opposition activists-in-exile to try to negotiate an end to Syria’s three-year conflict. More than 600 people were evacuated from Homs on Sunday, said Governor Talal Barrazi. The operation was part of a U.N.-mediated truce that began Friday between the government of President Bashar Assad and armed rebels to allow thousands of women, children and elderly men to leave opposition-held parts of the city, and to permit the entry of food and supplies.

Forces loyal to Assad have blockaded rebel-held parts of Homs for over a year, causing widespread hunger and suffering. Dozens of people were wounded when they came under fire as they waited at an agreed-upon evacuation point in the rebel-held neighborhood of al-Qarabis, according to three activists based in Homs, who spoke to The Associated Press by Skype.

Despite the gunfire and exploding mortar shells, hundreds of women, children and elderly men ran toward a group of Red Crescent workers waiting less than a mile (kilometer) away, said an activist who gave his name as Samer al-Homsy. The Syrian activists said the gunfire came from a government-held neighborhood.

The Syrian news agency SANA also reported that civilians came under fire, but blamed “terrorists,” the government term for rebels. At least four busloads of civilians were shipped out, according to footage broadcast on the Lebanese television station al-Mayadeen. Wide-eyed children, their prominent cheekbones suggestive of malnutrition, tumbled out of a bus, assisted by aid workers.

“Our life was a disaster, we had no food, no water,” one distressed woman said. “There was nothing, my children are all sick. They were thirsty,” she said, standing with a group of exhausted-looking children as khaki-clad Syrian soldiers, Red Crescent workers in red jump suits and U.N. workers in blue protective vests gathered around the buses.

Some evacuees were to be hosted in government-run shelters, others were going to join relatives in safer areas, while still others said they did not know where they were going. Khaled Erksoussi of the Syrian Red Crescent, which is assisting the operation, told the AP that the agency hoped to evacuate as many civilians as possible before the truce expires Monday.

On Saturday, gunmen opened fire on civilians, leaving aid workers wounded and two trucks damaged, Erksoussi said, speaking by telephone from Damascus. Despite the violence, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, said in a statement that the truce showed “that even in the darkest of nights it is possible to offer a glimmer of hope to people in desperate need of assistance.”

The Homs cease-fire was arranged by U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, who urged the warring sides to aid the estimated 2,500 civilians trapped in the ancient, rebel-held quarters known as Old Homs, to build trust during the first face-to-face meetings of government officials and opposition figures in Switzerland last month.

But the truce only took hold after talks ended, and its last day, Monday, now coincides with the beginning of another round of U.N.-mediated negotiations in Switzerland. The Syrian delegation arrived in Switzerland Sunday evening.

Homs was one of the first areas to rise up against Assad in 2011 and has been particularly hard hit by the war. Over the past year, the government regained control over most of the city, except for neighborhoods in the historic center.

Meanwhile, in the northern city of Aleppo, Syrian government aircraft dropped makeshift barrel bombs on a series of rebel-held districts, including one that killed more than 15 people in the neighborhood of Haydariyeh, said the activist group, the Aleppo Media Center. The bombs, crude weapons packed with explosives, fuel and metal, set nine vehicles ablaze, including some carrying civilians fleeing the area.

The bombings are part of a weekslong campaign by Assad’s forces to wrest control of Aleppo, parts of which were seized by rebels in mid-2012. The Syrian uprising began with largely peaceful protests but gradually evolved into an increasingly sectarian civil war pitting predominantly Sunni Muslim rebels against Assad’s government, which is dominated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Syria’s many minorities have thrown their support behind Assad, fearing for their fates should hard-line rebels come to power. On Sunday, extremist rebels killed at least two dozen Alawite gunmen defending their central village of Maan, the Syrian Observatory said. The Syrian state news agency said a “massacre” had occurred, but provided no further details. A video uploaded by rebel sympathizers showed at least one man killed, and bearded, grinning gunmen looting village homes. The Observatory said women and children had been evacuated before the gunmen entered.

Meanwhile, the Qatar-based broadcaster al-Jazeera aired what it said was new footage of a dozen Syrian nuns who have been held captive by rebels since December. Rebels seized the nuns and at least three other women from the Greek Orthodox Mar Takla convent when fighters overran Maaloula, a mainly Christian village north of Damascus. The group, who work in the convent’s orphanage, was taken to the nearby rebel-held town of Yabroud.

An activist from the area who uses the name Amer, said rebels belonging to the Nusra Front were holding the nuns. He said Qatar officials were trying to negotiate their release and that the video was likely issued to prove to mediators that the women were in good health.

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