BEIRUT (AP) — Dozens of children and women along with elderly people in wheelchairs were evacuated Friday from besieged neighborhoods of Syria's battleground city of Homs under a deal between the warring sides that included a three-day cease-fire.
The rare truce in Homs, which will also allow the entrance of aid convoys, may help build some confidence ahead of a second round of peace talks between the opposition and the government of President Bashar Assad, scheduled to begin in Geneva next week.
By nightfall, about 80 civilians were brought out of the city, many of them appearing frail and exhausted. Residents have endured a crushing blockade and severe food shortages for more than a year.
U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi had pushed for aid for the estimated 2,500 civilians trapped in the ancient, rebel-held quarters known as Old Homs as a confidence-building measure during the first face-to-face meetings in Geneva last month.
The talks were adjourned until Feb. 10 with no tangible progress, as the Syrian government accused the opposition of capitalizing on human suffering in Homs to score points with the international community.
There have been few cease-fires during the course of Syria's nearly three-year-old conflict. Over the past year, several temporary truces were negotiated to allow for the evacuation of civilians and the delivery of food parcels in and around Damascus.
Homs, one of the first areas to rise up against Assad in 2011, has been particularly hard hit. The government has regained control over much of the city, except for a few neighborhoods in the historic center, where rebels are holed up.
The extent of the evacuation is not clear, and officials have not said how many civilians will leave altogether. Earlier, Syrian TV said 200 were expected to leave Friday and dozens more in the following days. The evacuation excludes men ages 15 to 55, who are seen as likely fighters, Homs governor Talal Barrazi told Syrian state TV.
While the operation is indeed a breakthrough, many civilians, sick and wounded remain in the old city of Homs, said U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq.
"We understand that for the most part the operation went smoothly, but there were isolated reports of gunfire heard during the day," Haq said. "We'll try to evacuate more civilians and deliver aid in the next few days."
The evacuees will be allowed to go wherever they want, Homs' governor said, adding that a shelter has been prepared, capable of taking up to 400 people with nowhere else to go.
"I tell those who left today that soon we will celebrate with them by returning them to their homes," he said, suggesting that the government plans to recapture areas under rebel control.
Syrian TV showed elderly men, some wrapped in blue blankets, arriving at the frontline separating government and opposition-held territory in Homs, assisted by Syrian Red Crescent paramedics in red uniforms.
They were searched, then transported in buses to a nearby shelter where they were given water and food. An elderly man on a stretcher was loaded into an ambulance.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said the evacuation was the result of "difficult discussions over many days" that also led to a three-day cease-fire, which began Thursday.
"The atmosphere is positive" Barrazi said, adding that the first batch of food supplies will be sent to rebel-held areas on Saturday.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Thursday the evacuation "is not a substitute for the safe, regular and unfettered delivery of humanitarian assistance to those in need."
"Humanitarian access should not be a political bargaining chip," she said.
In the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest, government forces launched a counteroffensive against rebels who had stormed parts of the city's central prison earlier in the week and freed hundreds of prisoners. Syrian troops regained much of the area on Friday, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The group said two days of fighting left 20 government troops and 17 rebels dead.
Rebels have been besieging the Aleppo prison, estimated to have 4,000 inmates, for almost a year. They have rammed suicide car bombs into the front gates twice, lobbed shells into the compound and battled frequently with the hundreds of guards and troops holed up inside.
Associated Press Writer Edith M. Lederer contributed to this report from the United Nations.