About 200 people were expected to leave a besieged area of the Syrian city of Homs yesterday in the first stage of a humanitarian deal to evacuate civilians and allow aid to be delivered, a regional official said.
Speaking to Syrian state television, Homs Governor Talal al-Barazi said the atmosphere was “positive” ahead of the operation, which was expected to begin around midday and allow women, children and elderly to leave the besieged old city.
The UN welcomed reports of the agreement on Thursday, although Washington questioned the sincerity of the government’s intentions.
The siege of the old city has gone on for more than a year and activists say 2,500 are trapped inside the area, struggling with hunger and malnourishment.
They represent only a small fraction of besieged Syrians across the country who are in desperate need of aid.
Barazi said the first group would include women, children under 15 years old and men over 55.
He said reception centers had been set up to receive and treat people leaving the old city, although those evacuated were free to go wherever they liked.
“We are ready today to receive any number, even it exceeds 400, but according to the United Nations yesterday the expected number is 200, or it could be lower,” he said.
In Aleppo on Thursday, a suicide bomber blew himself up at the gates of a prison and rebels stormed in behind him, freeing hundreds of inmates as part of an offensive aimed at capturing key government symbols around the northern city, activists said.
The rebels in Aleppo declared a push to seize the city’s central prison and the Kweiras military air base to the east. Opposition fighters have been trying to capture the installations for months.
The offensive began when a Chechen suicide bomber from the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front attacked the prison gates, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Rebel fighters then managed to gain control of large parts of the compound. By evening, heavy clashes between the rebels and soldiers were raging inside.
The Observatory and other activists said the rebels freed several hundred prisoners.
State-run Syrian television said the army foiled an attempt by “terrorist groups” to attack the prison.
Meanwhile, government forces dropped crude “barrel bombs” in deadly airstrikes as both sides escalated their fight for the strategic city ahead of a second round of peace talks set for next week. Opposition leaders threatened to suspend the talks over the barrel bombings.
In the past six days alone, the makeshift weapons have killed more than 250 people in Aleppo, including 73 children, the Observatory said.