Syrian state television said on Friday that the evacuation of civilians from a besieged area of the city of Homs had begun under a humanitarian deal agreed this week.
The evacuation began as Russia announced that Syria’s warring parties had agreed a three-day ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid in to those who remain.
“Moments ago the evacuation of civilian children, women and elderly began,” a bulletin on state television said.
Some 12 civilians came out on the first bus from the rebel enclave which has been under tight army blockade for more than 600 days, an AFP correspondent reported. The Red Cross expected 200 people to leave.
The United Nations had been waiting on Friday for a promised pause in fighting around besieged rebel-held areas of Syria’s third city Homs to deliver desperately needed aid and evacuate civilians who want to leave.
Under a surprise deal struck by the UN on Thursday, the Syrian government agreed to a “humanitarian pause” in the fighting around the rebel-held enclave in the city center to allow in food and medicines for the hundreds of civilians who have lived under siege for more than 600 days.
But the first consignment of food and medicines will not go in until Saturday, Homs governor Talal Barazi told AFP.
The relief supplies had been held up in a UN warehouse in a government-held area of the city just kilometers away while the negotiations for relief access dragged on for months.
Washington said that the aid convoy was expected to enter early Friday, although UN officials cautioned that the timing would depend on the agreed halt to fighting going into effect on the ground.
The rebel-held Old City and adjacent neighborhoods have come under near-daily shelling since the army imposed a blockade in June 2012 after recapturing most of Homs in a counter-offensive launched that February.
At least 1,200 children, women and elderly people are among some 2,500 civilians who have been trapped under siege, surviving on little but olives, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says. Al-Akhbar could not independently verify these figures.
Their plight was on the agenda of long-awaited peace talks between the government and the opposition in Switzerland last month, but the talks broke up without a hoped for agreement on access for relief supplies.
It was left to UN representatives in Damascus to thrash out the deal with Syrian officials, who had long insisted that they would allow civilians to leave but would not allow aid to be taken in.
“Homs Governor Talal al-Barazi and UN resident coordinator Yaacoub El Hillo have reached an agreement securing the exit of innocent civilians from the Old City and the entrance of humanitarian assistance for civilians who choose to stay,” the state SANA news agency announced on Thursday.
UN spokesman Farhan Haq said the Syrian government had agreed to a “humanitarian pause” in its bombardment of rebel positions.
SANA said “the relevant Syrian authorities will implement the deal by providing the necessary humanitarian assistance”.
US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said: “We understand the operations will begin tomorrow, Friday morning, and will include a local humanitarian pause while the evacuations take place and while the food and other humanitarian assistance is delivered.”
In Geneva, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said food and supplies had been placed on the outskirts of Homs but they would not be delivered until safety is assured.
“They’re not going to travel by night, but the agreement for delivery is there, and that is what we are welcoming,” OCHA spokesman Jens Laerke said.
“You may only hear about the actual delivery when it has taken place. And that is simply to ensure the safety of our staff.”
In the first year of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule that erupted in March 2011, activists dubbed Homs the capital of the revolution.
But a bloody counter-offensive launched by the army in February 2012 saw it recapture much of the central city, which lies on a strategic crossroads on highways between Damascus and the north, and the interior and the Mediterranean coast.
The rebel-held Khaldiyeh and Baba Amr districts came under massive bombardment leading to the deaths of hundreds of civilians and journalists, including acclaimed American war correspondent Marie Colvin.
The offensive confined the rebels to a small enclave in the city center, which was further reduced in a new assault launched after pro-government forces recaptured the town of Qusayr in June last year, cutting off the rebels’ supply route to neighboring Lebanon.
(AFP, Reuters, Al-Akhbar)