- POSTED: 07 Feb 2014 21:22
- UPDATED: 07 Feb 2014 23:08
A first group of civilians was evacuated from besieged rebel-held areas of Homs on Friday under a UN-supervised deal between the Syrian government and opposition.
HOMS: The first trapped civilians were evacuated from besieged rebel-held areas of Syria's Homs on Friday as Damascus finally confirmed it will join a new round of peace talks next week.
State television and other networks showed footage of Red Crescent volunteers assisting frail-looking old men wrapped in blankets inside a bus, as a woman lying on a stretcher awaited her turn.
Syria's third city, dubbed "the capital of the revolution" by rebels, has been a key flashpoint since early in the almost three-year-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.
State broadcasting said that by the afternoon, three busloads had left Homs with a total of 60 civilians on board, mostly women, children and the elderly.
An AFP correspondent said some 12 civilians came out on the first bus from the rebel enclave which has been under army blockade for more than 600 days.
Homs governor Talal Barazi told AFP as many as 200 civilians were "ready to be evacuated today" (Friday), in line with information received by the United Nations.
The evacuation is part of a surprise deal brokered by the UN between the two sides after months of negotiations that will also see desperately needed aid delivered during a "humanitarian pause" in fighting.
Barazi said the first consignment of food and medicines will not go in until Saturday.
Activists frequently report severe food and medical shortages, with some 3,000 people -- including 1,200 women, children, and elderly people -- trapped there, surviving on little more than olives and grass.
An activist, Yazan, told AFP via the Internet those leaving "have mixed feelings" -- they are happy to escape but worried about "what comes next and are afraid they might be detained by the regime".
Barazi said those allowed out were children under 15, men over 55 and women, calling the UN-supervised operation a "success".
There were initial "difficulties" for civilians trying to get out of the rebel-held Old City "but thanks be to God they were able to leave," he said.
"Humanitarian pause" in bloody war
State television said the civilians had been held as "human shields" by "terrorist groups" -- the term authorities use to describe rebels fighting to topple Assad's government.
UN World Food Programme staffers in blue vests supervised the evacuation, and a vehicle marked with the logo of UN refugee agency the UNHCR was parked nearby.
The government agreed to observe a "humanitarian pause" and opposition activists in Homs said the rebels had agreed to a four-day ceasefire.
The army launched a string of huge offensives to recapture rebel areas in the Old City in early 2012, with near-daily bombardments killing thousands.
Attacks in February 2012 also claimed the lives of American war reporter Mary Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik.
Assad's forces imposed the blockade in June 2012 after recapturing most of Homs, pushing the rebels into a small enclave in its centre.
A new advance last summer, after pro-government forces backed by Shiite fighters from Lebanon's Hezbollah movement recaptured the town of Qusayr, cut off the rebels' supply route.
The plight of the trapped civilians was on the agenda of peace talks between the government and the opposition in Switzerland last month, that broke up without any agreement on access for relief supplies.
Damascus to join new talks
The second round of peace talks due to open Monday had been uncertain after the government left open whether it would attend.
On Friday, Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad finally confirmed that a government delegation would go to Geneva for more talks with the opposition.
"It has been decided that the delegation of the Syrian republic will take part in the second round of negotiations in Geneva," state news agency SANA quoted him as saying.
In the first round of talks, the two sides failed to agree on a single point despite persistent pressure from UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, and co-sponsors Russia and the United States.
On Tuesday, Syrian National Coalition chief Ahmad Jarba met Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of Russia, a key Damascus ally, in Moscow to press demands by the opposition.
For Assad's opponents, the central point of the negotiations is the transition foreseen in the Geneva I communique -- which calls for an interim government but remains unclear on Assad's future.
The government insists that Assad's rule is not up for discussion and demands that the talks focus on "terrorism".