BEIRUT – 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 jihadi 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 al-Qaida linked 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.