Syria agrees to allow women, children to leave Homs, but peace talks yield slow progress

George Ourfalian/REUTERS - Syrian army soldiers loyal to President Bashar al-Assad walk through a hole in the wall in Al-Mirnda building, after claiming to have regained control of the area, in Aleppo on Jan. 26, 2014.

GENEVA — Syrian peace talks produced a small sign of progress Sunday, with an apparent agreement from Syria’s government to allow women and children to leave the besieged heart of the central city of Homs.

But it remained unclear whether authorities would allow a convoy of humanitarian aid to enter the stricken area, and the government set conditions for the departure of civilians, underscoring just how difficult it will be to secure agreement on any of the far more contentious issues dividing the protagonists in Syria’s civil war.

A boy with toy gun poses for picture in front of barricades at the police headquarters in the eastern Ukrainian town of Slaviansk, April 17, 2014. Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that Ukraine's government needs to provide guarantees to its Russian-speaking population in the east of the country to resolve the crisis. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

A boy with a toy gun poses in front of the barricaded police headquarters in Slaviansk, eastern Ukraine.

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A request that the government release detained women and children went nowhere, with the government denying that it is holding any of those on a list submitted by the opposition.

Lakhdar Brahimi, a longtime Algerian diplomat who is mediating the negotiations at the U.N. headquarters in Geneva, expressed guarded optimism that this second day of talks between the Syrian government and the opposition suggested that slow progress.

“So far I think the process is continuing, but it is very early days,” he said.

“In general, there is mutual respect, and they are aware of the fact that this attempt is very important and must continue,” Brahimi added. “We hope that this mood will continue and we will achieve progress gradually.”

U.S. officials expressed frustration, however, with the slow progress on the aid delivery issue, accusing the government of being responsible for the failure of many past efforts to secure safe passage for humanitarian aid into Homs.

“The regime is blocking all convoys to Homs and has been doing so for months,” said a U.S. official in Geneva who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive subject. “Anything the government says to the contrary is false.”

The peace talks got off to a fitful start Saturday with a proposal to focus first on securing an agreement to end the humanitarian crisis in the heart of the old city of Homs, where about 2,500 people have been living alongside rebel fighters without access to food or medicine for months, surrounded by government troops.

Brahimi described the modest first proposal as a confidence-building measure intended to give the talks an early boost, ahead of the more contentious issues over who will rule Syria and how that lie ahead.

Diplomats said that the proposal had been negotiated in advance under prodding from the United States and Russia, and that it had been expected to be swiftly adopted as a demonstration of goodwill.

Instead, the government initially denied knowledge of the plan, then set conditions for its implementation, said a Western diplomat briefed on the talks. Among them was a requirement that residents of Homs submit a list of names of all the men living there before any could leave.

The opposition accused the government of cherry-picking parts of the plan in order to delay discussions on broader issues, such as ways to transition power away from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“It’s a stalling tactic,” said Oubai Shahbandar, a senior adviser to the opposition. “The regime is attempting to put various conditions not conducive to our goals.”

Rebels with the Homs Military Council issued a statement Sunday saying that they are willing to observe a cease-fire to allow the convoy to enter. But activists said they are concerned that the government is not guaranteeing the safety of civilians who left. They also objected to the government’s demand of a list of the names of all the men in the besieged area, saying such a list could be used to detain those who support or sympathize with the rebels.

“This might be because they want some specific names to arrest them,” said Abu Rami, an activist in Homs. “The very important thing is we want women, children, elderly and wounded to leave. We need them to get out to safety.”

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Miqdad told reporters that the government will allow women and children to leave central Homs and said the government is ready to allow humanitarian aid to enter.

But he added that it is important that the aid “should not go to the hands of terrorists” and made it clear that the government regards all the armed groups battling to overthrow Assad as terrorists.

Miqdad indicated that the government is unhappy with the early focus of the talks on the plight of Homs, one of the first cities to rise up against Assad, and he accused the United States of being behind the push for the delivery of aid.

“Don’t insist on talking about the situation in a single part of Syria,” he said. “Because the United States wants the issue of Homs to be talked about, we are talking about Homs.”

A U.S official responded that the regime should not focus on the United States but on “engaging with the opposition in a serious negotiation on how to end the suffering of the Syrian people.”

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