GENEVA — The United Nations confirmed Thursday that Syria’s warring sides have agreed to a temporary halt in fighting in the city of Homs so that civilians can leave and a convoy of life-saving supplies can be delivered to the besieged old city district.
When the pause in fighting will take place was uncertain, but officials said it might come as soon as Friday – a step that U.N. officials said would improve the atmosphere ahead of a second round of peace talks that are set to begin Monday among Syrian officials, opponents of President Bashar Assad, and Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations’ special envoy to Syria.
A similar agreement had been expected during the first round of talks, which took place Jan. 24-31, but the two sides could not agree on its terms, and that failure came to dominate the sessions.
“We welcome the reports that the parties have agreed to a humanitarian pause to allow civilians out of, and aid into, Old Homs City,” Farhan Haq, the acting deputy spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said in New York.
U.N. officials confirmed a report by the official Syrian news agency that the deal had been arranged in talks between the governor of Homs, Talal al Barazi, and the U.N.’s resident representative in Syria, Yacoub el Hillo. It was unclear which rebel groups had been consulted on the arrangement; U.S. officials said last week that they had both written and oral assurance that the rebels would not fire on aid convoys.
The agreement, if carried out, would mark the second accord in recent days that would allow aid supplies to reach some of an estimated 245,000 people who’ve been trapped between the warring sides for months.
On Thursday, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which is responsible for assisting Palestinian refugees, completed its eighth straight day of food distribution inside the Yarmouk district of Damascus, where an estimated 18,000 civilians are caught between rebels, who control the district, and pro-Assad militias, which are arrayed around it.
Since Jan. 30, the U.N. relief agency has distributed 6,201 parcels of food, each weighing 56 pounds and intended to feed as many as eight people for 10 days. On Thursday, in addition to the food distribution, the U.N. relief agency also began a vaccination program it said would inoculate thousands of children inside Yarmouk, which began as a Palestinian refugee camp but grew into a district of Damascus. Before fighting began there in earnest a year ago, the district was home to an estimated 160,000 people.
U.N. relief agency spokesman Christopher Gunness said he could not comment on the Homs agreement, but he has noted in previous emails that the aid work in Yarmouk offered proof that cease-fires could be effective in allowing aid to reach civilian populations trapped by the war.
Diplomats in Geneva, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said the first step in the Homs agreement would come Friday, when people wishing to leave the besieged old city will be allowed to do so. That will be followed on Saturday by the arrival of an aid convoy. On Sunday, a second wave of people wishing to leave will be permitted to do so.
A U.S. State Department official in Geneva, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the United States welcomed the agreement. But the official cautioned that evacuating civilians and the occasional aid convoy would not satisfy the Syrian government’s obligations.
“As we have said, an evacuation is not a substitute for the safe, regular and unfettered delivery of humanitarian assistance to those in need wherever they are,” the official said. “Civilians should be allowed to come and go freely, and humanitarian access should not be a political bargaining chip."
In New York, Haq said the U.N. already had positioned food to begin the aid deliveries to the old city district, where an estimated 2,500 are trapped.
Valerie Amos, the U.N.’s emergency relief coordinator, said the accord helped ease the frustration and disappointment she felt when the first round of talks ended without an agreement on what the U.N. has called “humanitarian pauses” in the fighting to arrange aid convoys in combat areas.
In addition to 245,000 people trapped in towns that are under siege by either government troops or rebels, there are nearly 3 million people living in areas that have been difficult to reach because of the conflict, according to U.N. estimates.
U.N. officials have identified areas under siege by government forces as the Damascus-area towns of Eastern Ghouta, Moadamiyeh, and Darayya, as well as Yarmouk. Areas under rebel siege include the towns of Az Zahraa and Nubul in Aleppo province and Fua in Idlib province.
Diplomats in Geneva said that continuous Russian pressure on the Assad government had helped arrange the Homs deal. One diplomat said that Russian officials have been stressing “the importance to alleviate the humanitarian situation” to Syrian officials in daily meetings.
Without a pause in fighting, delivering aid has proved to be extremely dangerous. At least 34 workers from the Syrian Red Crescent and 13 U.N. workers have been killed trying to deliver aid, according to U.N. statistics and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Scores more are missing.
Zarocostas is a McClatchy special correspondent.