Syria began evacuating civilians from a besieged area of Homs today while Russia announced that Syria's warring parties had agreed a three-day ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid in to those who remain.
The first bus carrying 11 weary-looking evacuees, accompanied by Syrian Arab Red Crescent officials, arrived at a meeting point outside Homs as government soldiers stood by. The aid group expected 200 people to leave.
Another person was brought out by ambulance from the Old City district where activists say 2,500 people have been under siege for more than a year, hungry and malnourished.
Russia said a three-day ceasefire had been agreed in Homs, which was one of the first cities to erupt in protest against president Bashar al-Assad nearly three years ago and where street after street has been destroyed in heavy fighting between Dr Assad’s forces and rebels seeking his overthrow.
“It is foreseen that all children, women, men under age 55, as well as wounded people, can leave the combat zone without obstacle,” Russia’s foreign ministry said.
It said Syrian authorities had announced that evacuees would be provided with medical treatment and shelter. “Those residents of Old Homs who prefer to remain will be sent the necessary humanitarian aid,” the ministry said.
Moscow, which has supported and armed Dr Assad throughout the civil war, hailed the Homs deal as a "landmark agreement".
US officials were doubtful when the deal was announced yesterday, saying they feared for the fate of anyone who moved from rebel areas into government control. "We have reason on the basis of history to be very sceptical," US ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said.
Rebels have rejected similar offers to evacuate women and children in the past because of concerns about what might happen to any men, including fighters, who are left behind. Dozens of men were detained and disappeared after a deal last year reached in Mouadamiya, west of Damascus.
Homs governor Talal al-Barazi said earlier that the first group of evacuees from Homs would include children under 15, men over 55, and women. He said reception centres had been set up to receive and treat people leaving the old city, although those evacuated were free to go wherever they liked.
“We are ready today to receive any number, even it exceeds 400, but according to the United Nations yesterday the expected number is 200, or it could be lower,” he told Syrian television.
“We hope this first step will succeed and will continue tomorrow and after tomorrow and so on to ensure safe exit to all civilians who want to leave the old city.”
The Homs deal is potentially the first modest result to emerge from deadlocked peace talks in Geneva. The first face-to-face negotiations between Syria’s warring sides began in the Swiss city two weeks ago and are due to resume on Monday.
Humanitarian access to Homs had been the first item on the agenda a fortnight ago, intended to be a relatively consensual issue which could build momentum to address the far more intractable political divide between Dr Assad and his foes.
The opposition say talks must focus on political transition which world powers called for after a June 2012, meeting in Geneva. The government says the priority is to end terrorism - a label it gives to all armed opposition - and says political transition, which it rejects, is only part of the agenda.