Women and children trapped in a besieged Syrian city will be permitted to leave “immediately” under a deal that marked the first tangible sign of progress in peace talks.
“What we have been told by the [Syria] government side is that women and children in the besieged area of the [Homs] old city are welcome to leave immediately,” Agence France-Presse quoted U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi as telling a news conference after talks with government and opposition delegations.
“Hopefully starting tomorrow, women and children will be able to leave the Old City in Homs,” Brahimi said.
The subject of Homs -- where hundreds of families in the Old City are living under siege with near-daily shelling and the barest of supplies -- has been discussed at length since the two parties started face-to-face talks on Saturday.
“You know that the center of the city has been under siege for a very, very long time and now I hope that we are approaching a solution for at least the civilians.” Brahimi added.
The veteran diplomat said the opposition delegation, which has been calling on the government to release tens of thousands of detainees, had agreed to a government request to provide a list of detainees held by armed rebel groups.
Brahimi also said he would meet the two sides jointly on Monday, when they are expected to discuss opposition demands for the creation of a transitional governing body.
The mediator said he was pleased with the general tone of peace talks.
“I am happy, because in general there is mutual respect and they are aware of the fact that this attempt is important and we must continue. I hope that this mood will continue.”
However, he acknowledged that the agreement on the city of Homs fell short of his hope to send a humanitarian aid convoy, the Associated Press reported
But, he said, “to bring Syria out of the ditch in which it has fallen will take time.”
AFP also reported him saying that the talks had touched on continued efforts to have convoys of humanitarian aid brought into Homs.
Homs, one of the first cities to rise against President Bashar Assad, once more came under mortar attacks from the government.
Brahimi defended the pace of the talks, which have yet to touch upon the issue of President Bashar al-Assad’s future.
“I think being too slow is a better way than going too fast,” he said. “If you run, you may gain one hour and lose one week.”
Brahimi said the thorniest topic - a possible transitional government - will not come up until at least Monday.
“I think this belittles the importance of this conference and the goal that was drawn for it,” said Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to Assad.
The Western-backed opposition, made up largely of exiled Syrians, said Assad has lost legitimacy and can no longer lead a country after unleashing the military on largely peaceful protests nearly three years ago.
While the government accused the rebellion with being rife with terrorists and that Assad is the only person able to end the fighting that has killed more than 130,000 people.
Homs was considered a promising place to start the negotiations.
The city was one of the first areas that plunged into armed conflict in 2011. Neighborhoods in the old city have been ravaged following repeated government assaults to reclaim control from rebels.
The city had a pre-war population of 1 million, but most residents have since fled. Activists say about 800 families are trapped, without regular access to food, medicine and basic necessities.
“The regime is blocking all convoys to Homs and has been doing so for months,” said a senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks remain sensitive. “The situation in Homs is extremely urgent. Anything the government says to the contrary is false.”
Monzer Akbik, an opposition spokesman, said the coalition was still determined to stay for the political talks set to begin Monday. He accused the government of using “stalling techniques.”
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