Aid teams have evacuated hundreds of exhausted civilians from besieged Homs city, as Syria’s regime and rebels again accused each other of violating a truce ahead of new peace talks.
The evacuation of 420 of the 3000 trapped people, who had been reduced to living off little more than olives and herbs after more than 600 days under siege, came as representatives from both sides converged on Geneva.
Damascus’ delegation and members of the opposition began arriving for a second round of the so-called Geneva II talks scheduled to begin on Monday.
Sunday’s evacuation from Homs was the second in three days after a UN-brokered truce for besieged districts of Syria’s third city began on Friday.
Five men were killed when one besieged district was hit by mortar fire during Sunday’s evacuation, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
They were the latest deaths in a nearly three-year conflict that has killed 136,000 people and displaced millions.
“Four hundred and twenty besieged people came out today from the Old City districts of Homs, and the operation is still under way,” Homs governor Talal al-Barazi said.
Television footage showed women, children and elderly men getting off the buses that brought them out of the besieged areas.
They appeared visibly exhausted and frail, in a video broadcast by Beirut-based channel Al-Mayadeen. Children, carried by their parents, looked pale.
The civilians were aided by UN staff and Syrian Red Crescent volunteers amid a strong Syrian army presence.
“We had nothing. All the children were sick, we even had nothing to drink,” said one exhausted woman, her three children standing round her.
State television said the operation took place under fire from “armed terrorist groups” – regime terminology for rebels.
But the Britain-based Observatory echoed claims by activists that at least five people were killed in shelling that targeted the besieged district of Qarabis.
Activists accused pro-regime militiamen in neighbourhoods bordering the besieged districts, who opposed the truce, of firing the mortar rounds.
Shelling also targeted an aid convoy entering the besieged districts on Saturday in an attack that killed five residents and wounded 20, the Observatory said.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres in a statement on Sunday paid tribute to the Red Crescent and UN volunteers.
“This shows that even in the darkest of nights it is possible to offer a glimmer of hope to people in desperate need of assistance,” he said.
Homs, much of which has been reduced to rubble, was dubbed “the capital of the revolution” by activists before a bloody 2012 offensive by regime forces recaptured much of the city.
The 600-day siege was a key point of discussion during last month’s first round of peace talks in Switzerland that yielded few concrete results.