DAMASCUS: The United Nations (UN) was waiting on Friday for a promised pause in fighting around besieged rebel-held areas of Syria’s third city Homs to deliver desperately needed aid and evacuate civilians who want to leave.
Under a surprise deal struck by the UN on Thursday, the Syrian government agreed to a “humanitarian pause” in the fighting around the rebel-held enclave in the city center to allow in food and medicines for the hundreds of civilians who have lived under siege for more than 600 days.
The relief supplies had been held up in a UN warehouse in a government-held area of the city just kilometers (miles) away while the negotiations for relief access dragged on for months.
Washington said that the aid convoy was expected to enter early Friday, although UN officials cautioned that the timing would depend on the agreed halt to fighting going into effect on the ground.
The rebel-held Old City and adjacent neighborhoods have come under near-daily shelling since the army imposed a blockade in June 2012 after recapturing most of Homs in a counter-offensive launched that February.
At least 1,200 children, women and elderly people are among some 2,500 civilians who have been trapped under siege, surviving on little but olives, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says.
Their plight was on the agenda of long-awaited peace talks between the government and the opposition in Switzerland last month, but the talks broke up without a hoped for agreement on access for relief supplies.
It was left to UN representatives in Damascus to thrash out the deal with Syrian officials, who had long insisted that they would allow civilians to leave but would not allow aid to be taken in.
“Homs Governor Talal al-Barazi and UN resident coordinator Yaacoub El Hillo have reached an agreement securing the exit of innocent civilians from the Old City and the entrance of humanitarian assistance for civilians who choose to stay,” the state SANA news agency announced on Thursday.
UN spokesman Farhan Haq said the Syrian government had agreed to a “humanitarian pause” in its bombardment of rebel positions.
SANA said “the relevant Syrian authorities will implement the deal by providing the necessary humanitarian assistance.”
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said: “We understand the operations will begin tomorrow, Friday morning, and will include a local humanitarian pause while the evacuations take place and while the food and other humanitarian assistance is delivered.”
In Geneva, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said food and supplies had been placed on the outskirts of Homs but they would not be delivered until safety is assured.
“They’re not going to travel by night, but the agreement for delivery is there, and that is what we are welcoming,” OCHA spokesman Jens Laerke said.
“You may only hear about the actual delivery when it has taken place. And that is simply to ensure the safety of our staff.”