A Syrian man looks for herbs to eat in the heavily damaged neighbourhood of Juret al-Shiyah in the central Syrian city of Homs on Feb. 1. (Str/AFP/Getty Images)

The United Nations brokered a deal Thursday between the Syrian government and rebels in the city of Homs that will allow aid to reach hungry citizens, offering a first small sign that peace talks in Geneva are yielding results.

The United Nations welcomed what it termed a “humanitarian pause” that will allow women, children, the elderly and the injured to leave and aid to enter the Old City in the heart of Homs, which has been besieged by government forces for nearly two years.

The deal has been in the works for weeks, and the United Nations had hoped that it would be formally sealed in the first days of the Geneva negotiations, nearly two weeks ago, to give the talks an early boost. A convoy of 12 trucks of food, medicine and other aid has been waiting to enter since then.

But the Syrian government balked at allowing supplies to enter the area out of concern that it would fall into the hands of “terrorists.” It also objected to the emphasis placed on Homs, saying other areas where supplies are scarce also should be helped. The peace talks paused last Friday without further results and are set to resume Monday.

The aid agreement is expected to bring relief to about 2,500 people who have been holed up alongside several hundred rebel fighters in the shattered city center without regular access to food or medicine since summer 2012.

The big story

THE TALKS: On Friday, representatives of Syria's government and the opposition met for the first time as part of the Geneva II talks. Talks have continued between the two sides, which disagree on the fundamental issue of whether President Bashar al-Assad could have a place in a transitional government.

THE CONFLICT: More than 120,000 people have been killed and 2 million displaced in a conflict that began in March 2011 as largely peaceful protests against Assad. Fractious opposition groups are battling fighters loyal to Assad as well as those linked to al-Qaeda, part of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Timeline: Unrest in Syria

Almost three years after the first anti-government protests, conflict in Syria rages on. See the major events in the country's tumultuous uprising.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki welcomed the U.N. announcement but said the agreement doesn’t go nearly far enough.

“An evacuation is not a substitute for the safe, regular and unfettered delivery of humanitarian assistance to those in need, wherever they are,” Psaki said. “Civilians should be allowed to come and go freely, and humanitarian access should not be a political bargaining chip.”

Homs was one of the first cities to stage protests and then take up arms against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, and many of its neighborhoods quickly fell under rebel control. But over the past year, the government has steadily wrested most of them back, leaving a pocket of rebel-held territory in the city’s historic heart. Residents say food is so scarce that they have been reduced to eating grass, and there are unconfirmed reports of children having died of malnutrition.

Activists in the Old City who said they had obtained details of the agreement from the rebels who negotiated it said it would be implemented as early as Friday, and unfold in stages over four days.

First, civilians who want to leave will be greeted at a welcome center by the United Nations. Residents will then supply the authorities with the names of citizens who do not wish to leave — a key demand of the government, which is keen to know the identities of the men who are living there. On the third day, humanitarian aid will be allowed across the front lines into blockaded ­areas, and on the fourth, another group of civilians will be permitted to leave.

The United Nations refused to comment on the timing or details of the plan. “We’ll say something once it happens,” said spokesman Farhan Haq.

The Syrian state news agency SANA confirmed that the government had agreed to the deal, saying it would enable “innocent civilians” to leave and also permit aid to enter.

The deal came a day after Russia indicated yet again that it would block action in the U.N. Security Council to force the Syrian government to comply with demands for the delivery of humanitarian aid to besieged areas. But Russia also suggested that it is exerting pressure on Syria to make some concessions to the international community’s growing concerns about the scale of the humanitarian crisis engulfing areas that are besieged by government forces.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said the Syrian government deserves no special credit.

“There are about 2,500 people in the Old City of Homs,” of which 500 or 600 would probably be covered by this deal, Power told reporters in New York. “Any progress, when any single life is improved, when any single individual is able to depart conditions like that or get access to food, that’s better than the alternative. But I think we should not lose sight of the full picture here.”

Faisal Shareef, an activist in the besieged al-Waer neighborhood of Homs, attributed the agreement to “the stand of our heroes, the negotiations in Geneva and the pressure placed by the Americans upon the Russians to pressure the regime.” Syria’s government had bowed to most of the terms of the people living in the rebel-held areas, he said.

But an activist living in the Old City took a gloomier view, saying the deal signaled the capitulation of a people who had stood
firm against bombardments for months and now were obliged by hunger to leave their homes. “The fact that the regime succeeded in pushing them to the brink of starvation is a shame on all humanity,” said Abu Bilal al-Homsi.

If implemented, the deal will give a boost to the next round of peace talks Monday. But the Syrian government has still not committed to attending those talks.

SANA quoted presidential adviser Bouthaina Shabaan, a member of the delegation, as saying that the government is waiting for a decision from Assad on whether to attend.

Also Thursday, the Security Council urged faster compliance with plans to destroy Syrian chemical weapons. Damascus has missed several deadlines for removing material, the latest on Wednesday, and the Security Council received a mixed assessment of progress Thursday from the head of the mission charged with securing and destroying the stockpile.

Power accused the Syrian government of deliberately prolonging the removal.

“We know the regime has the ability to move these weapons and materials because they have moved them multiple times over the course of this conflict,” Power said. “It is time for the Assad government to stop its foot-dragging, establish a transportation plan and stick to it.”

Anne Gearan in Washington contributed to this report.