The evacuation of civilians and delivery of aid to besieged rebel-held areas of Syria’s third city Homs has resumed as peace talks in Geneva struggle to make headway.
Government and opposition delegations again met face-to-face on Wednesday, day three of the second round of talks in Switzerland, but the government side refused even to discuss a transition plan put forward by the opposition.
And the hard-won talks had no effect on the bloodshed at home, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reporting an average daily death toll of 236 people since the launch of their first round on January 22, the highest since the uprising erupted nearly three years ago.
The observatory said the army launched an offensive backed by air power against Yabrud, the last rebel bastion in the strategic Qalamoun region.
A total of 217 civilians who wanted to escape more than 18 months of tight army blockade were evacuated from the rebel enclave on Wednesday, after the relief operation was suspended the previous day, provincial Governor Talal al-Barazi told said.
“The operation went well and smoothly,” Barazi said.
The evacuations bring the total number of people given safe passage out since Friday to more than 1400.
They came hours after 190 food parcels and 4700kg of flour were taken into the besieged rebel enclave, the Syrian Red Crescent’s head of operations Khaled Erksoussi said.
“There are children there, and this is very heartbreaking, that this is the first time they see a banana,” Erksoussi said.
Red Crescent staff backed by UN agencies began evacuating some of the estimated 3000 civilians trapped in besieged areas on Friday under a UN-brokered humanitarian truce between the government and the rebels.
Concern has grown, however, over the fate of some 336 male evacuees aged between 15 and 55, who UN officials say were detained for questioning by the security services as they left Homs.
According to Barazi, 111 of them have since been released.
Activists inside Homs said some men leaving had been prevented from heading to the destinations of their choice, and had been stripped of their standard issue identity cards.
The evacuations have also been marred by violence in violation of the promised truce, with aid convoys coming under fire and 14 people killed in shelling.
The operation has been welcomed internationally, and is providing desperately needed relief for civilians who have described surviving on little more than olives and wild plants.
“We will use any chance we get to get in and deliver aid and help people to leave, because we believe this chance won’t come again,” Erksoussi said.