Syria pledges to relax Homs siege

Will permit aid, evacuation of trapped citizens

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GENEVA -- The Syrian government has agreed to allow the first aid convoy in more than a year to enter the besieged old-city quarter of Homs and to permit the evacuation of women and children trapped there, Syria's deputy foreign minister said Sunday.

If the aid convoy and the evacuation take place as planned, it would be the first concrete development from the peace talks in this Swiss city. The United Nations' special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, who is mediating the talks, said a convoy could go in as soon as today if local agreements can be worked out.

The talks have yet to touch upon the issue of a possible transitional government -- their purpose according to terms laid out when they were first conceived. But the Syrian government was unequivocal that President Bashar Assad's future was assured in the country led by his family since 1970.

"This is a red line. If some people think we are coming here to give them the keys of Damascus, they are wrong," said Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Meqdad, echoing the language U.S. President Barack Obama used to describe a chemical weapons attack in Syria.

In Syria, the war continued as if there were no effort to stop it -- gunfire and shelling in Homs, between Assad's forces and rebels, and between the al-Qaida-linked militants and Kurdish fighters, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Mr. Meqdad said his government was ready for the aid shipment to take place, but he emphasized that his government believed that the evacuation of women and children from the old city neighborhood was the more significant of the agreements. As many as 3,000 people may be trapped in the neighborhood, which has been under siege for 18 months.

There are many ways the agreement could fail. A previous agreement to deliver 200 food packets to the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus last weekend has yet to be completed, said Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which provides aid to Palestinians. Mr. Gunness said only 138 of the packets have been delivered since Jan. 18. One packet, Mr. Gunness said, would feed a family of eight for 10 days. An estimated 18,000 people are believed trapped in Yarmouk, which is controlled by rebels and sealed off by militias loyal to Assad.

"Assurances given by the authorities have not been backed up by action on the ground," Mr. Gunness said in a statement emailed to reporters.

Asked about the situation in Yarmouk, Mr. Meqdad said that as many as 500 food packets had been delivered, and that more had not been delivered because the camp "is occupied entirely by armed groups." When UNRWA attempted to deliver aid, "they started shooting at the aid convoy," he said.

Mr. Gunness' email did not blame either side for the delivery difficulties, though he implied that the biggest burden for carrying out the agreement was the government's. The situation in Homs could be just as difficult. The Syrian government has long claimed that the people still in the old-city area are primarily armed rebels and their families, and that some of the civilians are being kept there against their will.

Mr. Brahimi said that as part of the evacuation plan, the Syrian government was insisting that the opposition coalition provide a list of all the men in the besieged part of Homs, so that it could sort out combatants from noncombatants. But it was not clear that the rebels in the besieged district would agree to provide it, given that it might be used to single them out for retaliation.

Mr. Meqdad also denied that government forces were shelling Homs, as local anti-government activists had reported. The activists said government forces had used mortars and heavy machine-gun fire to destroy homes and wound civilians.

"It is a big lie that the government is shelling" Homs, he said. "The armed groups are shelling, and they report it as the government." He said the government had "not fired a single shell" at Homs.

Associated Press contributed.

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