The evacuation of civilians and delivery of aid to besieged rebel-held areas of Syria’s third city Homs resumed on Wednesday, as peace talks in Geneva struggled to make headway.
Government and opposition delegations again met face-to-face on 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 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 1,400.
They came hours after 190 food parcels and 4,700 kilograms 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 3,000 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.
‘Chance won’t come again’
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.
But Barazi said that with the relief operation due to end on Wednesday, a meeting was to take place to discuss the possibility of prolonging the truce in Homs and continuing aid.
In Geneva, the opposition National Coalition laid out a transition plan, including chasing out foreign fighters and a path to elections. But the government refused to discuss it, saying the first item on the agenda was the battle against rebel “terrorism”.
Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad insisted the political question was meant to come much later, and that switching issues around was a “recipe for disaster and failure”.
Muqdad said the priority was “terrorism” – the regime’s term for a revolt it says is fuelled by foreign jihadists and Gulf money.
The opposition counters that Free Syrian Army rebels are themselves fighting the jihadists as well as Assad’s force.
‘A brutal, fascist regime’
Monzer Aqbiq, a senior adviser to Syrian opposition leader Ahmad Jarba, blasted the regime for failing to even respond to the proposal laid out at Wednesday’s session.
“The root of this problem is the existence of a totalitarian, brutal, fascist regime, a corrupt one, that the Syrian people don’t want any more. This is what will save lives: the transition,” Aqbiq said.
The opposition made no mention in its plan of President Bashar al-Assad, who it says should quit right away – but whose political future is not up for discussion, according to the government.
“We consider that it goes without saying that Assad and his acolytes are not part of the TGB (transitional governing body),” Aqbiq said.
The co-sponsors of the talks, Russia and the United States, are to meet on Thursday with UN-Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi.
But the rival delegations said they had no new meetings scheduled during the day.
Russia proposed to its Western partners at the United Nations Security Council a counteroffer late Wednesday to bring aid to desperate Syrian civilians, diplomats said without providing details.
Russia has so far refused to back a Security Council resolution that would allow the delivery of food, shelter, medical aid and water to Homs and other cities where thousands of civilians are trapped by fighting.