DAMASCUS (AFP) ― The evacuation of civilians and delivery of aid to besieged rebel-held areas of Syria’s third city Homs resumed Wednesday, as peace talks in Geneva struggled to make headway.
Government and opposition delegations again met face to face on day three of the second round of talks in Switzerland but the government side refused even to discuss a transition plan put forward by the opposition.
And the hard-won talks had no effect on the bloodshed at home, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reporting an average daily death toll of 236 people since the launch of their first round on Jan. 22, the highest since the uprising erupted nearly three years ago.
A total of 217 civilians, who wanted to escape more than 18 months of tight army blockade, were evacuated from the rebel enclave on Wednesday, after the relief operation was suspended the previous day, provincial Governor Talal al-Barazi said.
“The operation went well and smoothly,” Barazi said.
The evacuations bring to more than 1,400 the total number of people given safe passage out since Friday.
They came hours after 190 food parcels and 4,700 kilograms of flour were taken into the besieged rebel enclave, the Syrian Red Crescent’s head of operations Khaled Erksoussi said.
“There are children there, and this is very heartbreaking, that this is the first time they see a banana,” Erksoussi said.
“Our psychological support teams are there to try to deal with the cases as they come out, but eventually the teams themselves will need psychological care because the situation is very emotional.”
Red Crescent staff backed by U.N. agencies began evacuating some of the estimated 3,000 civilians trapped in besieged areas on Friday under a U.N.-brokered humanitarian truce between the government and the rebels.
Concern has grown, however, over the fate of some 336 male evacuees aged between 15 and 55, who U.N. officials say were detained for questioning by the security services as they left Homs.
According to governor Barazi, 111 of them have since been released.
Activists inside Homs said some men leaving had been prevented from heading to the destinations of their choice and had been stripped of their standard issue identity cards.
“There are some 60 activists in the besieged areas. Some of them want to leave, but will only do so if there are guarantees for their safety,” said Yazan, an activist who asked that his full name not be published for fear of retribution.
The evacuations have also been marred by violence, in violation of the promised truce, with aid convoys coming under fire and 14 people killed in shelling.
The operation has been welcomed internationally and is providing desperately needed relief for civilians who have described surviving on little more than olives and wild plants.
“We will use any chance we get to get in and deliver aid and help people to leave, because we believe this chance won’t come again,” Erksoussi said.
In Geneva, the opposition National Coalition laid out a transition plan, including chasing out foreign fighters and a path to elections. But the government refused to discuss it, saying the first item on the agenda was the battle against rebel “terrorism.”
Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad insisted the political question was meant to come much later and that switching issues around was a “recipe for disaster and failure.”
Muqdad said the priority was “terrorism” ― the regime’s term for a revolt it says is fuelled by foreign jihadists and Gulf money.
The opposition counters that Free Syrian Army rebels are themselves fighting the jihadists as well as Assad’s force.
Monzer Aqbiq, a senior adviser to Syrian opposition leader Ahmad Jarba, blasted the regime for failing to even respond to the proposal laid out at Wednesday’s session.
“The root of this problem is the existence of a totalitarian, brutal, fascist regime, a corrupt one, that the Syrian people don’t want any more. This is what will save lives: the transition,” Aqbiq said.
The opposition made no mention in its plan of President Bashar al-Assad, who it says should quit right away, but whose political future is not up for discussion according to the government.
“We consider that it goes without saying that Assad and his acolytes are not part of the TGB (transitional governing body),” Aqbiq said.
The cosponsors of the talks, Russia and the United States, are to meet Thursday with U.N.-Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi.
But the rival delegations said they had no new meetings scheduled during the day.