BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian government on Friday began evacuating civilians trapped in rebel-held parts of a battleground city under a rare deal struck between the government and the opposition that also included a three-day cease-fire allowing humanitarian aid convoys to the besieged areas.
The first two buses carrying at least 35 women, children and elderly men accompanied by Syrian Red Crescent paramedics in red uniforms arrived at the frontline separating government and opposition-held territory in Homs. Syrian TV said 200 people were expected to leave during the day, and dozens of others over the next three days.
According to estimates by activists, there are about 2,500 people in the city's old quarters. They have endured a crushing blockade and severe food shortages for more than a year.
Also Friday, the Syrian government announced it will take part in a second round of peace talks in Geneva on Monday. The first face-to-face U.N.-hosted talks adjourned on Jan. 31 with no signs of progress, including on humanitarian issues such as aid convoys to Homs.
The negotiations aim to broker a political solution to Syria's civil war. The nearly three-year conflict has killed more than 130,000 people, forced more than 2.3 million to seek refuge abroad, and sent sectarian tensions soaring across the region.
The Syrian government had accused the opposition of trying to capitalize on human suffering in Homs to try and score points in Geneva. Damascus insisted the evacuation is not related to the talks, claiming that previous attempts at a truce were obstructed by opposition fighters.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said the evacuation was the result of "difficult discussions over many days" that also led to a three-day cease-fire beginning Thursday.
Homs governor Talal Barrazi told Syrian state TV that the evacuation excludes men between the age of 15 and 55, who were likely to be fighters.
Barrazi said the first batch of about 200 civilians will leave the rebel-held Homs neighborhood of Jouret el-Shayah. He said those who leave can go wherever they want, adding that "the governorate has prepared a shelter that can take up to 400 people."
The TV station showed several elderly men, some wrapped in blue blankets, as they came out, assisted by Syrian Red Crescent paramedics in red uniforms. One man who appeared ill was carried into an ambulance.
President Bashar Assad's government announced Thursday that it reached an agreement with the United Nations to let hundreds of trapped civilians leave besieged parts of Homs and permit U.N. humanitarian relief convoys to enter.
Earlier Friday, about half a dozen U.N. SUVs, nine buses and two Red Crescent ambulances drove from government held areas toward a neighborhood under rebel control.
In New York, U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said the U.N. and humanitarian organizations have food, medical aid and other basic supplies on the outskirts of Homs ready for immediate delivery as soon as "the green light" is given for safe passage.
"The atmosphere is positive" Barrazi said, adding that the first batch of food supplies will be sent to rebel-held areas on Saturday.
In the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest, government forces launched a counteroffensive against rebels who had stormed parts of the city's central prison earlier in the week and freed hundreds of prisoners. Syrian troops regained much of the area on Friday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The group said two days of fighting left 20 government troops and 17 rebels dead.
Rebels have been besieging the Aleppo prison, estimated to have 4,000 inmates, for almost a year. They have rammed suicide car bombs into the front gates twice, lobbed shells into the compound and battled frequently with the hundreds of guards and troops holed up inside.
The nearly 3-year-old uprising against Assad has left more than 130,000 people dead and forced more than 2.3 million to seek refuge abroad.