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Syria talks produce first breakthrough

Geneva: Syria's regime agreed at peace talks in Geneva Sunday to allow women and children safe passage from rebel-held areas of the city of Homs where they have been under siege for months.

In the first tangible promise to emerge from the talks, UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said President Bashar al-Assad's regime would allow the women and children out “from now on”.

But opposition activists in Homs expressed scepticism, saying they first wanted aid supplies and “guarantees” that those leaving would not be arrested.

“What we have been told by the government side is that women and children in this besieged area of the city are welcome to leave immediately,” Brahimi told reporters after a second day of talks involving regime and opposition delegations in Switzerland.

He said this would be “hopefully starting tomorrow” and that other civilians would also be allowed to leave “but the government needs a list of their names first.”

The subject of Homs where hundreds of families in the Old City are living under siege with near-daily shelling and the barest of supplies has been discussed at length since the two parties started face-to-face talks on Saturday.

Brahimi also repeated his hope that a convoy of humanitarian aid could enter the besieged area on Monday, saying rebel forces had already agreed and the local governor was considering the issue.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad confirmed that women and children would be allowed to leave and blamed rebel forces for preventing it in the first place.

“I have been personally involved over the past two years to get these women and children out of the Old City of Homs… In all these attempts we have been prevented by the armed groups, who did not allow a single person out,” Muqdad told reporters.

From inside the area, a spokesman for the Syrian Revolution General Commission activist network, Abu Rami, said residents had “no trust in the regime” and wanted guarantees from the UN or International Committee of the Red Cross.

“We are calling for significant amounts of food and medical supplies, and for guarantees that women, children and wounded people evacuated from Homs' besieged areas will not be detained,” he said.

Pulled together by the United Nations, Russia and the United States, the two sides are meeting in the biggest diplomatic push yet to stem Syria's bloodshed after nearly three years of civil war.

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