ISTANBUL — The Syrian government announced on Friday that it would participate in next round of Geneva peace talks aimed at ending the country’s civil war, as civilians trapped in a rebel-controlled part of Homs, one of the conflict’s urban epicenters, began trickling out under a deal negotiated by the United Nations.
Syria’s official SANA news agency said at least 58 people, mostly women, children, and the elderly, had departed the besieged Old City neighborhood of Homs by midafternoon. Syrian state television broadcast images of frail civilians escorted onto a bus by members of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. Vehicles from the UN refugee agency and World Food Program could also be seen.
The Homs governor, Talal al-Barazi, was quoted by SANA as saying that he expected 200 civilians to be evacuated by day’s end and that he had reached an agreement with the United Nations to allow aid deliveries inside the besieged area to those who chose to remain.
Precisely when the aid would be allowed into the area, where about 2,500 civilians have been trapped along with an indeterminate number of fighters, remained unclear. But in an interview with Syrian state television, Yacoub El Hillo, the UN official who was overseeing the evacuation process, said that it would continue in the coming days and that he expected aid distribution to start Saturday.
The emergence of at least some of the trapped civilians reflected the first tangible result of intense international diplomacy and pressure on the antagonists in Homs, one of the incubators of the 2011 political protests and insurgency against President Bashar Assad that has since morphed into a grinding civil war that has left at least 130,000 people dead.
The foreign ministry of Russia, Assad’s biggest foreign ally in the conflict, said Friday that its embassy in Damascus had helped the United Nations broker a three-day cease-fire for the Homs evacuation, and that women, children, men older than 55, and the wounded would be free to leave.
An antigovernment activist in the Old City neighborhood who was reached by telephone, and gave only his first name, Ahmed, said that one of the elderly male evacuees had been shot in the stomach by a sniper as he was on his way to a bus and had to be stabilized at a hospital before he was evacuated.
“The situation is very tense,” Ahmed said.
UN officials first reported Thursday that an agreement had been reached to provide some humanitarian relief in Homs. But even with the deal moving forward on Friday, the Syrian opposition remained skeptical about the government’s intentions toward the armed insurgents inside Homs after the civilians who want to leave have departed.
Western diplomats have said they believe that between 500 and 700 civilians want to be evacuated, and that at least 80 are wounded.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians remain trapped and desperate in other besieged areas of Syria. Efforts by the United Nations and rights groups to provide them with humanitarian emergency food and medicine have largely been thwarted so far, resulting in accusations that Assad is attempting to starve the insurgency into submission.
The first round of peace talks between the government and exile opposition sides, which concluded in Geneva last week, failed to reach even an accord on the humanitarian aid issue. But in a statement to Syrian state media on Friday, Faisal Mekdad, the deputy foreign minister, said the government’s delegation would return to Geneva for the resumption of talks Monday. The talks are sponsored by the United Nations and backed by a number of countries including the United States and Russia.
The United States and the opposition coalition insist that the goal of the talks is to get the sides to agree on the members of a “transitional governing body” to run the country, as is called for in the UN communiqué outlining the talks.
The Syrian government, however, has insisted that the talks focus on fighting terrorism. While Islamists and extremists, including one Al Qaeda affiliate, have risen to prominence among the rebel forces inside the country, the government dismisses all resistance to its rule as terrorism.
In announcing the government’s participation, Mekdad said that its delegation was willing to discuss the communiqué “article by article” and that the talks should seek to “protect the lives of Syrians and stop the bloodshed by the armed terrorist groups and their regional and international supporters.”
Officials involved in the talks acknowledge that the possibility of an imminent breakthrough in the talks is low, largely because there are few levers that Assad’s opponents can use to force his government to surrender power.
Assad’s military has a firm grip on the capital and much of the country’s center, while rebel forces lack unity and have become increasingly bogged down in clashes with an extremist group that has grown in their midst.
The Syrian government has also questioned the opposition’s ability to deliver any deal that might be reached. The government says that the opposition delegation lacks control over the fighting forces inside Syria and that it represents only a slice of the anti-Assad groups outside the country.