BEIRUT – Aid workers failed to evacuate anyone from blockaded rebel-held neighborhoods in the central Syrian city of Homs on Tuesday or deliver any food, increasing pressure on them to complete the ambitious humanitarian operation before a fragile truce expires, activists and Syrian Red Crescent officials said.
Over 1,000 civilians have already left the embattled districts, which have been under siege for 20 months by government forces and suffer from widespread hunger. The three-day truce that allowed the U.N.-Red Crescent operation was extended to six days, set now to expire at midnight Wednesday.
But hundreds of civilians are still inside, and continued shelling and shooting between the two sides severely limited efforts.
Officials said Tuesday that they allowed over a hundred men of fighting age to leave Monday after they were questioned and cleared of rebel links, state media said. A U.N. spokesman however said that hundreds of others were held back for questioning, saying it was concerned for their welfare.
Tuesday’s delay was for technical reasons, said Khaled Erksoussi, the head of operations at the Syrian Red Crescent. He said meetings between U.N. and Syrian officials in the city took more time than expected, forcing them to postpone all their activities until Wednesday.
“There were no operations at all today. The U.N. and Red Crescent cars did not move,” Erksoussi said by telephone from Syria.
The holdup came after U.N. officials wrangled a hard-won extension of a three-day truce, which first went into effect Friday and which ended Sunday evening, allowing for the evacuation of 1,130 civilians, mostly women, children and the elderly, according to a tally by the international organization. Food supplies were also delivered for 2,500 people inside the city, the U.N. estimated.
Syrian activists inside Homs blamed the government for the delay, saying it was to prevent the passage of food into rebel-held parts of the city.
“The thugs, they are making obstacles, they don’t want assistance to enter,” said an activist who uses the nickname Abu Bilal.
There was no immediate comment from the Syrian government.
The governor of Homs, Talal Barrazi, was quoted by Syrian state TV as saying the 111 men, aged between 16 and 54, left the city on Monday. He said they were released after surrendering to authorities.
Before evacuations began, authorities said that gunmen who surrendered would be allowed to return to normal life. In previous truces in other parts of Syria, some men have disappeared in detention facilities of Syrian intelligence after leaving blockaded areas, activists say.
Speaking in New York, U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said 370 men had left rebel-held areas and were being held, and questioned by government forces in a nearby school. He said of that number, 111 were released so far.
Nesirky said U.N. officers were at the school and interviewing the men after they were being released.
“We’re concerned for their welfare,” Nesirky said of the men still being held. “We have U.N. protection officers present at the school where these individuals are being held and are talking to the men after their questioning. It’s essential they do not come to any harm.”
In a statement Tuesday, the U.N. children’s agency said there were at least 500 children among those evacuated so far. UNICEF said the children were “terrified, frail and emaciated.” “Mothers were anxious, and many were crying,” a statement from the UNICEF said. “All they wanted was for their children to reach safety.”
The U.N. agency estimated there were more than 1,000 children trapped in Homs before evacuations began.
Homs, Syria’s third largest city, was one of the first areas to rise up against President Bashar Assad in March 2011.
The operation came as Syrian opposition and government negotiators met in Geneva, holding their first face-to-face meeting this month as U.S. and Russian officials prepared to join the stalemated peace talks.
The meeting broke up after three hours, and both sides said the session failed to produce an agreement even on the agenda.
Also Tuesday, the Syrian opposition-in exile-insisted denied activist reports that an extremist rebel group conducted a mass killing of Alawites in a contested village in central Syria.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said gunmen linked to a breakaway al-Qaida group entered Maan in the central province of Hama on Friday and killed gunmen protecting the village. They said the rebels also killed civilians who could not leave in time. The Observatory put the death toll at 20 defenders and 25 civilians.
Opposition official Monzer Akbik said the village was “evacuated of civilians more than six months ago. Those who were killed in that battle were killed in action — no civilians were killed.”
In a statement he accused the Syrian government of spreading lies to tarnish the opposition.