HOMS: Syria evacuated 83 civilians on Friday who had lived under government siege in the devastated city of Homs for a year and a half, the first concrete result of talks launched two weeks ago to try to end the country's civil war.
Buses ferried dozens of weary-looking evacuees, accompanied by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, to a meeting point outside Homs where aid workers, soldiers and police were gathered. The World Food Programme said many appeared malnourished.
"They were living on leaves and grass and olives and whatever they could find," WFP spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said.
The long awaited move was meant to have been a relatively straightforward opening step in the peace talks, which resume on Monday in Geneva with little prospect of resolving core grievances of a conflict which has killed 130,000 people.
It marked the start of a planned three-day humanitarian ceasefire, but even as it took place, activists said they feared for the fate of both evacuees and those left behind.
Under the Homs deal, women, children and old men were allowed to leave the Old City, which has been cut off by President Bashar al-Assad's forces, while humanitarian supplies will be allowed in to those who remain.
"The United Nations can confirm that 83 people were evacuated from Old Homs City today," said U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq. "The people – women, children and the elderly – were then delivered to places of their choice, escorted by United Nations and Syrian Arab Red Crescent staff."
It was the first time the Red Crescent had gained access to the center of Homs since the siege began, the aid agency said.
The WFP said it had trucks ready to take a month's supply of food on Saturday to an estimated 2,500 people trapped in the rebel-held heart of the city.
"There are signs of malnutrition, for some of them it is very obvious," Byrs said. "Some said they have not eaten bread for five months.
Russia said a three-day ceasefire had been agreed in the city, which was one of the first areas to erupt in protest against Assad nearly three years ago and where street after street has been destroyed in heavy fighting between Assad's forces and rebels seeking his overthrow.
Syrian authorities had announced that evacuees would be given medical treatment and shelter, and that residents of Old Homs who prefer to remain will be sent humanitarian aid.
Moscow, which has supported and armed Assad throughout the civil war, hailed the Homs deal as a "landmark agreement".
Western officials gave a skeptical response, saying Syria had an unconditional obligation to civilians trapped by conflict and arguing the issue should not have required weeks of negotiation to allow aid to enter.
"The regime should let the humanitarian convoy in. Then the population should decide to stay or leave," said Jon Wilks, Britain's special representative for Syria.
Rebels have rejected similar offers to evacuate women and children in the past because of concerns about what might happen to any men, including fighters, who are left behind. Dozens of men were detained and disappeared after a similar deal made last year in Mouadamiya, west of Damascus.