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Hundreds more evacuated from Syria's Homs

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Some 300 people were evacuated Monday from army-besieged districts of Syria's Homs amid a four-day "humanitarian pause" that had earlier been marred by deadly attacks.

The latest evacuations bring the total number of civilians given safe passage out of the war-ravaged central part of the city up to some 1,000 since Friday.

Rebel neighbourhoods in Homs, Syria's third largest city, have been under a tight army blockade for more than 18 months, and some 3,000 people had been living on little more than olives and herbs.

According to the Syrian Red Crescent, 300 people left Monday, "most of them... women and children."

No truce violations were reported Monday, though 14 people, including at least three rebels, were killed in shelling on the besieged neighbourhoods on previous days.

The operation is taking place as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime and rebels resume talks in Switzerland aimed at ending the nearly three-year civil war, which has killed 136,000 people and displaced millions more.

A source at the Syrian Red Crescent said discussions were still under way on whether an initial three-day truce would be extended to allow humanitarian operations to continue.

"In principle, the ceasefire will be extended, and we will try to get civilians out as soon as possible," the source said.

An activist in Homs said a deal to extend the truce by another 72 hours had been reached, but there was no immediate official confirmation.

The first days of the operation saw some 700 civilians evacuated, with Red Crescent volunteers helping elderly women and men aboard buses waiting to take them away.

On Saturday, the Red Crescent was able to deliver 250 food parcels, along with hygiene kits and medicine, despite its vehicles being fired upon. One driver was wounded.

Mortar fire was also reported during the delivery.

Some 3,000 people are believed to be trapped in the besieged parts of Homs, with new mothers reportedly unable to breastfeed because of malnutrition.

'One-off convoys' not enough

On Sunday, video distributed by activists showed dozens of people, including children, running along a destroyed road as gunfire and shouting echoed in the background.

The International Committee of the Red Cross condemned attacks targeting the convoy and called for unimpeded aid to civilians.

"Without respect for the (Red Cross and Red Crescent) emblems and protection of those bearing them, crossing frontlines to save lives is all but impossible," it said.

The World Food Programme (WFP), which has been involved in the Homs operation, has called for unhindered humanitarian access to all besieged areas in Syria.

"One-off convoys into besieged areas offer only a minimum of relief," said the group's executive director Ertharin Cousin.

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 regime imposed a tight blockade on the remaining rebel-held areas shortly thereafter.

Speaking to reporters in Switzerland, Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad said "we finally have done a great job" on Homs.

"For the last two years, these people have prevented civilians from leaving the Old City of Homs," he said, accusing rebels he referred to as "terrorists" of firing on the aid convoy.

Activists have in turn accused the regime and its allied militia of firing mortar rounds at the besieged neighbourhoods in recent days despite the truce.

Elsewhere in the country, Syrian state television reported that "terrorists" -- had prevented the Red Crescent from delivering food and medicine to Aleppo's central prison for a fourth day.

It said the delay had led "to the deaths of 20 inmates from malnutrition and lack of medicine."

The Red Crescent could not immediately be reached for comment on the report.

An estimated 3,000 detainees, including Islamists, activists and minors, are held at the prison, which has been under attack by rebels for months.

They launched a major assault last week, briefly entering the facility, but were pushed back under heavy aerial attack by regime forces.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/140210/hundreds-more-evacuated-syrias-homs