Homs evacuation extended until Wednesday

A second round of peace talks between the Assad's regime and the Syrian opposition makes faltering start in Geneva

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The operation to evacuate civilians trapped in the Syrian town of Homs has been extended until Wednesday night, the United Nations announced on Monday.

The announcement on Monday was welcomed by U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos, and follows a successful but difficult three-day evacuation mission in Homs, where gunfire and attacks have frustrated progress.

"I hope this will allow us to evacuate yet more civilians and deliver much needed additional supplies," said Amos in a statement which reported that more than 800 people have been helped out of Homs since late Friday.

"The protection of civilians caught up in this horrendous conflict in Syria is the greatest priority for U.N. agencies and humanitarian partners," Amos added.

The civilians who left were among an estimated 3,000 people trapped since June 2012 in parts of the old city held by rebels and under attack by troops from President Bashar al-Assad's regime. The Syrian army has staged huge offensives, with near-daily bombardments killing thousands, AFP reported.

The humanitarian exit operation is part of a deal brokered by the United Nations between the regime and the Syrian opposition following last month first round of peace talks.

On the backdrop of the humanitarian operation in Homs, a second round of peace talks between the Syrian regime and the opposition Syrian National Coalition opened in Geneva on Monday.

But the peace talks got off to a shaky start with the international mediator meeting the two sides separately after violations of a local ceasefire and an Islamist offensive set back his efforts.

Ahead of the talks, mediator Lakhdar Brahimi told delegates to commit first to discussing both ending the fighting and setting up a transitional government. The government side said combating “terrorism” - its catchall term for the revolt - should be agreed first.

The second round was intended to follow quickly after no substantive progress was made last month at the first round of talks in nearly three years of civil war.

Brahimi had tried to break down mutual distrust by focusing on agreeing a truce for a single city, Homs, but even that was only achieved after the first round was over, and aid workers were fired upon as they evacuated civilians on Saturday, Reuters reported.

A letter from Brahimi given to the delegates over the weekend said the new round aimed to tackle the issues of stopping violence, setting up a transitional governing body, and plans for national institutions and reconciliation.

The opposition says a transitional governing body must exclude President Bashar al-Assad. The government says it will not discuss his leaving power.

The opposition said it had handed Brahimi its view of what a transitional government should look like and submitted witness statements it said showed the Syrian army had fired at the Homs aid convoy. The government blames the rebels.

The opposition also said there had been an escalation in the government’s use of “barrel bombs” - oil drums or cylinders packed with explosives and metal fragments and usually dropped from helicopters. It said more than 1,800 Syrians had been killed by them last week, half in rebel held parts of Aleppo.

“It is not acceptable that the regime will send its own delegation to peace talks while it is killing our people in Syria. This must stop,” opposition spokesman Louay al-Safi told reporters after the delegation met Brahimi.

[With AFP and Reuters]

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