Middle East

Syria crisis: Evacuation operation in Homs begins

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Media caption"Food and water is so short inside... Look at me I am just bones"

Emergency officials have evacuated 83 civilians from the city of Homs in Syria, according to the United Nations.

Buses were able to enter the rebel-held Old City after both sides agreed to a three-day pause in the fighting.

Up to 3,000 civilians are thought to be trapped in Homs.

The UN-negotiated ceasefire between Syrian forces and rebels should also allow food and medical aid to reach Homs on Saturday.

Farhan Haq, spokesman for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, said the people able to leave were children, women and the elderly.


They were "delivered to places of their choice, escorted by United Nations and Syrian Arab Red Crescent staff", he said.

A spokeswoman for the World Food Programme told Reuters that many of those evacuated appeared malnourished.

"They were living on leaves and grass and olives and whatever they could find," said Elisabeth Byrs.

The first busload of 12 elderly men and women were taken to the premises of the governor of Homs.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Many of those evacuated on Friday were elderly
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The Homs residents were given food when they arrived in the area under government control
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Some of those brought out first were in need of medical attention

BBC Arabic's Assaf Abboud in Homs says the evacuated people were given meals and drinks and were taken for medical checks.

They told journalists that there are more people who are still trapped in the city and who want to be evacuated.

On Saturday, Syrian authorities and the UN will discuss the delivery of medical and food aid in line with their agreement.

UN humanitarian co-ordinator Yacoub El Hillo oversaw Friday's evacuation operation.

"UN teams have pre-positioned food, medical and other basic supplies for immediate delivery as soon as the first group of civilians are out and we hope to send this aid on Saturday morning," he said in a statement.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The Syrian Arab Red Crescent took part in the operation
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption A temporary truce allowed buses to go in to the besieged area of the Old City

Parts of Homs Old City have been under army siege since June 2012.

Many neighbourhoods lie in ruins and activists say people have survived on little more than olives for weeks.

The situation in besieged districts of Homs was discussed during peace talks in Geneva a week ago.

Another round of talks is scheduled to begin on 10 February and the Syrian government has confirmed it will attend.

'First step'

Earlier on Friday, a BBC reporter in Homs said six buses arrived with three UN vehicles and six Red Crescent ambulances to pick up women, children, and elderly people.

Homs governor Talal Barazi described the atmosphere as "positive" ahead of the planned evacuation, which had run slightly behind schedule because of logistical hitches.

"We hope this first step will succeed and will continue tomorrow and after tomorrow [Saturday], to ensure safe exit to all civilians who want to leave the Old City," he said.

The Syrian foreign ministry said that under the deal - reached between the governor of Homs and the UN resident co-ordinator in Syria - "innocent civilians" would be allowed out of besieged areas.

"We are very happy that finally we found the possibility to bring out these people and to provide those who are needy inside old Homs with humanitarian aid they deserve," Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said.

"The only precondition is that this aid and the help should not go to terrorists or armed groups."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Much of Homs lies in ruins after intense bombardment

Homs - Syria's third largest city - has been a key battleground in the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

Much of the city initially fell under rebel fighters' control, but government forces have since retaken many areas, forcing the opposition into the Old City.

The UN says more than 100,000 people have died since the uprising began.

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