A Free Syrian Army fighter carries his weapons along a
street in the besieged area of Homs. REUTERS/Thaer Al
The United States has demanded that Syria allow aid into
the "starving" city of Homs, as talks aimed at ending three
years of civil war hit more trouble over the future of
President Bashar al-Assad.
The Syrian government said women and children could leave the
besieged city and that rebels should hand over the names of
the men who would remain. A US State Department spokesman
said an evacuation was not an alternative to immediate aid.
"We firmly believe that the Syrian regime must approve the
convoys to deliver badly needed humanitarian assistance into
the Old City of Homs now," said spokesman Edgar Vasquez. "The
situation is desperate and the people are starving."
He said the people of Homs must not be forced to leave their
homes and split up their families before receiving aid.
After long months of fighting, much of Syria's third biggest
city has been reduced to rubble and people inside are under
siege, cut off from supplies.
The city's fate has turned into a test of whether the first
peace talks attended by both sides in the three-year war can
achieve practical measures on the ground, while a broader
political settlement seems as remote as ever.
The U.N. mediator said he hoped Monday's talks in Geneva
could cover the central issue that divides the two sides -
Syria's political future and that of Assad - but both sides
immediately adopted entrenched positions.
"Once again, I tell you we never expected any miracle, there
are no miracles here. But we will continue and see if
progress can be make and when," U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi
Syria's government delegation presented a document for
negotiation which did not mention a transition of power,
Syrian television said.
The government's "declaration of basic principles" said
Syrians would choose a political system without "imposed
formulas" from abroad, an apparent reference to Western and
regional demands that Assad step down.
The opposition, which wants Assad to quit as part of
arrangements for a transitional government, immediately
rejected the proposal.
"The declaration is outside the framework of Geneva, which
centres on creating a transitional governing body. It fails
to address the core issue," the opposition's chief
negotiator, Hadi al Bahra, told Reuters.
Homs, occupying a strategic location in the centre of the
country, has been a key battleground. Assad's forces retook
many of the surrounding areas last year, leaving rebels under
siege in the city centre, along with thousands of civilians.
Children play in the rubble that litters the streets. The
city's buildings are smashed and its mosques are holed by
shell fire. In one deserted souk, debris lies in the aisles
and the roof is shredded with bullet holes.
A photo recently posted on Facebook shows a frail boy in Homs
holding a poster that reads: "Breaking the siege is a
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told a news
conference on Sunday the government would let women and
children leave the city centre if rebels gave them safe
passage. U.N. mediator Brahimi said he understood they would
be free to quit Homs immediately.
Western diplomats said the Syrian government should move
quickly to allow aid in or face a possible United Nations
Security Council resolution, with Russia and China being
urged to reverse their opposition to such a move.
"The ball is still in the regime's court. We understand that
a report has gone back to Damascus seeking instructions," one
In Homs itself, opposition activists said rebels demanded a
complete end to the blockade, not just a limited ceasefire.
An online video showed demonstrators with Islamist flags
denouncing the Geneva talks as "treachery".
It highlighted one of the difficulties of the Geneva talks -
the opposition delegation only represents some of the rebel
factions on the ground. Powerful Islamist fighters allied to
al Qaeda are not represented at all.
Brahimi acknowledging the slow start to proceedings which
began with a formal international conference on Wednesday.
"This is a political negotiation ... Our negotiation is not
the main place where humanitarian issues are discussed.
"But I think we all felt ... that you cannot start a
negotiation about Syria without having some discussion about
the very, very bad humanitarian situation that exists," he
Brahimi said opposition delegates, who have asked for the
release of nearly 50,000 detainees, had agreed to a
government request to try to provide a list of those held by
armed rebel groups - though many of these groups, fighting
among themselves, do not recognise the negotiators'
Mekdad said the government had examined an opposition list of
47,000 people believed to have been arrested by Assad's
forces and found most had either never been held or were now
free. He also denied that any children were being held.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whose government has
helped Assad resist Western pressure but backs a negotiated
peace to prevent the conflict spreading, called for progress
on aid, unblocking besieged areas and prisoner exchanges.
Underlining the difficulty of implementing even local
agreements on the ground, a U.N. agency trying to deliver aid
to a besieged rebel area of Damascus said state checkpoints
had hampered its work, despite assurances from the government
that it would allow the distributions.