DAMASCUS: A truce that has allowed the evacuation of hundreds of civilians from besieged districts of Syria’s Homs was extended for three days but fresh peace talks in Switzerland bogged down on Monday (Tuesday in Manila) in mutual recriminations.
The extension of the tenuous truce in Homs came as around 450 civilians were given safe passage out of the war-ravaged city, according to Syria’s Red Crescent, bringing the total number allowed out since Friday to some 1,200.
The evacuation of civilians from neighborhoods where they had been trapped for nearly 18 months was marred by violence over the weekend, with 14 people killed in shelling that threatened to derail the humanitarian mission.
Footage distributed by activists showed scores of traumatized men, women and children making their way down a rubble-strewn road flanked by rows of United Nations (UN) vehicles. One old woman lagged behind, alone.
In Geneva meanwhile, the warring sides blamed each other for escalating violence that has killed hundreds of people across the country in recent days, as they did throughout a previous round of talks in late January.
The Syrian opposition delegation warned it would not return for a third round if no progress was made in the current session.
“If there is no progress at all, I think it would be a waste of time to think about a third round,” said opposition spokesman Louay Safi.
UN and Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi began the latest session in Geneva by shuttling between the two sides, and suggested in a letter that the parties wait until the second or third day to resume joint meetings.
Brahimi wrote that he hoped that “separate sessions can lead to some positive outcomes,” and tried to nudge the teams towards discussion of how to stop the fighting and agree on a political transition.
Both sides said there would be a joint session on Tuesday, with the opposition saying it would begin at 10 a.m.
The situation in Homs had been discussed at the previous round of talks held last month, but a breakthrough only came later.
UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos welcomed the three-day truce extension, which officials said included Monday and would expire Wednesday night, but said aid workers had witnessed “terrible conditions” in a field hospital there.
She pointed out that tens of thousands of Syrians are trapped in besieged areas across the country.
“I hope that those negotiating in Geneva agree to allow the sustained delivery of aid to the 250,000 people in besieged communities in Syria and all those who are in desperate need across Syria,” she said in a statement.
The International Committee of the Red Cross and the World Food Program have also called for unimpeded access.