Mortar fire breaks Homs ceasefire
Published Saturday, February 8, 2014
Syrian activists and officials said mortars were fired early on Saturday in the besieged Old Homs despite a ceasefire intended to allow the evacuation of civilians and delivery of aid to people trapped in the city's central neighborhoods.
There were no immediate reports of casualties from the incident, which both sides blamed on each other, and it was not immediately clear whether it would affect the planned humanitarian operations.
State news agency SANA quoted Homs governor Talal al-Barazi as saying "armed terrorist groups broke the truce this morning in the Old City of Homs, firing mortars at the police building."
Syrian authorities describe all armed opposition against President Bashar al-Assad as terrorism.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-Assad monitoring group, quoted activists in Homs as blaming Assad's forces for the bombardment. It said five explosions shook the area at around 8.30 am.
A United Nations convoy with food and medical supplies was on standby on Saturday to enter the Old City and deliver its first shipment of aid to the district since mid-2012.
"Aid convoy is now being loaded and prepared to go to the Old City of Homs," the Red Crescent tweeted shortly before 11 am.
UN officials said the trucks would carry emergency rations for 2,500 people food, medical kits and bedding, as well as cash and other support for the "immediate needs both of those who choose to be evacuated from the area and of those who remain inside."
On Friday 83 civilians were evacuated from central Homs. Aid workers said some of them showed signs of malnutrition after living under siege for a year and a half in one of the strongholds of the 2011 uprising against Assad, which became an armed insurgency after his forces cracked down on protests.
Amateur video filmed by activists in the nearby Waar area showed a man smiling as he embraced his son, in their first reunion for more than 18 months.
UN spokesman Farhan Haq said there had been sporadic shooting during the evacuation of civilians on Friday but that both sides broadly observed the ceasefire.
"We understand that for the most part the operation went smoothly, but there were isolated reports of gunfire heard during the day," he said.
Saturday's aid delivery was expected to be followed by further evacuations on Sunday, a cleric inside the rebel enclave told AFP via the Internet.
"On Sunday, we plan for many women and children to leave," Abdul Hareth al-Khalidi said.
Even after Friday's evacuation of the first batch of civilians who chose to leave, hundreds more women, children and elderly remain among the 2,500 plus residents still inside.
Activists say they have been surviving on little but olives and wild cereals for months.
The Homs evacuation and aid delivery was made possible by a surprise UN-brokered deal between the government and rebel commanders on the ground to observe a three-day "humanitarian pause" in hostilities, which largely held on Friday, UN officials said.
The long-sought truce had eluded mediators in last month's fruitless first round of peace talks between government and opposition delegations in Switzerland which are due to resume in Geneva on Monday.
The desperately needed food and medicines have been held up for months in a UN warehouse in a government-controlled area just kilometers away from the trapped civilians awaiting the ceasefire required for their safe delivery.