U.N. aid convoy reaches Homs rebel enclave

Feb. 12, 2014 at 1:30 PM
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HOMS, Syria, Feb. 12 (UPI) -- A small convoy brought aid Wednesday to the besieged Syrian rebel quarter of Homs following a weekend attack on a similar effort that left five people dead.

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the United Nations cooperated in the relief attempt, the Wall Street Journal reported. Red Crescent volunteers at a staging area two miles away transferred food and medical supplies to armored U.N. trucks.

The first convoy made the delivery without incident and returned to the staging area to load up again, the Journal said.

Saturday, a convoy was hit by mortar fire, killing five people. Some of the dead were civilians in Homs who were waiting for the supplies. While the Syrian government blamed insurgents for the attack, some of the relief workers who had been with the convoy said the barrage appeared to come from pro-government forces.

The convoy Saturday was pinned down for hours in the rebel enclave in Homs.

The Assad regime has detained hundreds of Homs evacuees as soon as they were rescued, the top U.N. humanitarian official in Syria said. The world body now has no control over their fate, said Yacoub El Hillo, the U.N. official heading the Homs mission.

About a third of the nearly 1,160 people evacuated from the central-western city's closed-off old quarter -- which the opposition called the "capital of the revolution" before it was besieged by regime forces more than 18 months ago -- were immediately detained by Syrian authorities, El Hillo told reporters.

The United Nations said about 400 men, ages 15 to 54, were detained by Syrian authorities as presumed combatants as soon as they came out of the old quarter between Friday and Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The Homs provincial governor, who represents the regime, said the number of detained military-age men was 330.

About 100 were released Tuesday after receiving amnesty, but the rest were held in a school in a regime-controlled section of the city, U.N. and local officials said.

The governor refused to let news organizations visit the school.

The military-age men "wished to get out and they put themselves at the disposal of the government and relevant authorities," Gov. Talal al-Barazi said in remarks quoted by the Journal.

"The goal is to return Syrian citizens to the state's bosom," Barazi said.

Only those with "blood on their hands," or those who "committed an act of terror, crime or sabotage" under Syrian law, will be detained and sent to trial, Barazi said.

El Hillo, of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said his agency was not equipped or qualified to handle the detentions.

He said the United Nations should have brought in the International Committee of the Red Cross or another organization that has expertise in safeguarding the rights of prisoners of war.

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent chief, whose organization is part of the ICRC, was not asked to be involved in the Homs operation, the Journal said.

ICRC members are mandated by the Geneva Conventions to oversee the rights and welfare of prisoners of war and civilians detained during armed conflict.

Earlier reports indicated the Red Crescent was involved in the Homs evacuation and in providing desperately needed food and medicine to the besieged area.

El Hillo told reporters his agency was given assurances by Syrian authorities the military-age males would undergo a fair and transparent process.

The report came as President Obama and French President Francois Hollande expressed frustration and dismay to reporters at the White House about the humanitarian crisis in Homs and elsewhere in Syria.

Obama called the situation "horrendous" and said, "Syria itself is crumbling."

He said most countries in the U.N. Security Council want to pass a resolution mandating humanitarian aid be allowed into besieged parts of Syria.

But "Russia is a holdout," Obama said.

He said Secretary of State John Kerry "and others have delivered a very direct message to the Russians that they cannot say they are concerned about the well-being of the Syrian people when they are starving civilians."

"It is not just the Syrians that are responsible" for the Syrian humanitarian crisis, but "the Russians, as well, if they are blocking this kind of resolution," Obama said.

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