x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Aid mission to Syria’s Homs on hold as peace talks falter

The UN refugee agency said 336 male evacuees aged between 15 and 55 were taken in for questioning after they left the rebel-held district of the city.

DAMASCUS // Syria’s regime has detained more than 300 men and boys evacuated from besieged areas of Homs city, the United Nations said on Tuesday as talks in Geneva to end the country’s civil war failed to make any progress.

The UN refugee agency said 336 male evacuees aged between 15 and 55 were taken in for questioning after they left the rebel-held district of the city.

A total of 42 were released, but the remainder are still in the hands of the authorities, said Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the agency.

They are being held at a school near Homs. UN staff were at the building but not present during the interrogation sessions, Ms Fleming said.

The regime has said it was essential to interrogate men leaving the city in order to weed out “terrorists”, as it describes rebels fighting to remove Bashar Al Assad from power. But the opposition raised fears that separating the men of Homs from women and children could be a tactic to detain them.

The UN’s humanitarian coordination office said Tuesday that a total of 1,132 people had left Homs since evacuations began last Friday, but did not say how many people were thought to remain in the rebel-held districts.

The evacuation of civilians from the city was suspended on Tuesday for “logistical and technical reasons”, the governor of Homs province said.

Talal Barazi said the evacuation of civilians and delivery of food aid would continue on Wednesday, and that a truce in the city that runs until Wednesday night could be extended if necessary.

The temporary truce to assist civilains trapped in the city for more than 18 months dwindling food and medical supplies was agreed upon following the first ever talks between the Syrian regime and opposition last month in Geneva.

The talks mediated by the UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi resumed in on Monday but the two sides have so far failed to find any common ground.

“The beginning of this week is as laborious as it was the first week,” Mr Brahimi told reporters after the warring sides held their first face-to-face talks of the second round of negotiations.

“We are not making much progress,” Mr Brahimi said after the three-hour session ended.

The two sides still disagree fundamentally on the purpose of the discussions.

The regime insists they must be used to condemn “terrorism” in Syria, while the opposition wants to discuss a transitional government and Mr Al Assad’s departure from office.

UN officials confirmed that there will be a three-way meeting in Geneva on Friday between Mr Brahimi and envoys from Russia, which supports the Syrian regime, and the United States, which backs the opposition. Syrian negotiators also may join in bilateral meetings with the Americans and Russians.

More than 136,000 people have been killed since the conflict in Syria erupted in March 2011, while some 2.4 million Syrians have fled abroad.

* Agence France Presse and Associated Press.