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Last updated: February 9, 2014 4:44 pm
The pearl-white UN vehicles and the Red Crescent convoy had just entered the war-ravaged centre of Homs on Saturday to deliver relief supplies when the shelling and shooting began. As rockets struck, panic erupted and, in heart-pounding moments captured by a rebel sympathiser on video, the residents of the old city began rushing the wounded and some of the aid workers stuck in the street into crumbling buildings.
“Come in!” a man speaking halting English calls out to aid workers still sitting frozen in their vehicles. “Come into here!”
At least two people were killed and 30 injured, including relief workers from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society, when aid personnel and bedraggled residents came under attack on Saturday and Sunday during a closely watched humanitarian mission in Homs, according to activists accounts and international officials. Aid workers tentatively resumed the UN-brokered relief operation on Sunday with around five dozen people evacuated from the besieged central district, before shelling resumed.
“I am deeply disappointed that the three-day humanitarian pause agreed between the parties to the conflict was broken [on Saturday] and aid workers deliberately targeted,” Valerie Amos, UN humanitarian affairs co-ordinator, said in a statement. “I continue to call on those engaged in this brutal conflict to respect the humanitarian pause, ensure the protection of civilians and facilitate the safe delivery of aid.”
Elsewhere around the country fierce fighting continued. Rebels claimed to have captured the town of Ma’an, a pro-regime militia stronghold north of the city Hama. The regime’s forces continued fierce air strikes and shelling of the rebel-held outskirts of the capital, Damascus, and the commercial centre of Aleppo, at least 11 were killed by the deadly “barrel bombs” dropped onto residential neighbourhoods by government helicopters.
The Homs truce was hammered out last month in Geneva during first-ever face-to-face peace talks between the regime and opposition representatives. Many hope the deal could lay the groundwork for a curtailing of a conflict that has already cost more than 130,000 lives and displaced millions. Local and international relief workers appealed for an extension of a truce to allow the evacuation of more Homs residents.
UN officials, dependent on the regime to grant them access to the city, said it was too early to assign blame for the truce violations. Both the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the opposition blamed each other for shelling that imperilled a painstakingly crafted deal to allow for the evacuation of the elderly, women and children from, and deliver relief supplies to Homs’ besieged rebel-controlled old quarter.
But opposition supporters mocked the regime’s contention that rebels bombed their own stronghold while aid workers were delivering them crucially needed supplies and carting out their weak and wounded.
Both the target and political circumstances suggested militias loyal to the regime angry over the deal may have bucked orders from superiors, pointing to continued fragmentation of forces nominally under Mr Assad’s control.
“Mortar shells were fired from the areas affiliated to the regime,” said a rebel commander in a video posted to the internet. “One shell came near a UN car and after the shelling quietened the convoy passed. They all saw that. we gave them water and they were in a terrible psychological state. But all the rebel groups had orders not to fire a single bullet even if they see Bashar’s forces.”
Many opposition supporters worry about the fate of both those who emerge from the old city and those left behind.
“Homs is ours and we decide what to let inside of relief and who to let from civilians,” said a posting on a pro-regime Facebook page which claimed affiliation with the National Defence Committees, a militia force loyal to President Assad. “The lions of the National Defense are scrutinising everybody who comes out. It is for our sake that the civilians ... come out, so that we can bombard when want to because nobody will be left except for the terrorists.”
The videos of the bombardment released offered a nightmarish vision of life inside besieged central Homs, a rebel stronghold that has been without regular access to water or food for nearly two years. Many in the religiously mixed city of Sunnis, Christians and Allawites rose up peacefully against the Assad family’s four-decade rule in 2011, taking control of the city’s central Clock Square in nightly protests that persisted until security forces opened fire on civilians.
Since then, young men took up arms and began fighting the regime’s uniformed and irregular forces in a stalemate that has stretched on, with neither side able to make a breakthrough. The images from inside Homs showed crumbling buildings and streets overflowing with debris. Battered pick-up trucks ferried the wounded to makeshift field hospitals.
‘’We are getting bombarded in the presence of the UN officials,” the narrator declares during one video. “The UN is actually getting shelled along with us.”
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