Syria Geneva II talks: Breakthrough on easing siege of Homs, but peace agreement still remains far off

Women and children will be allowed to exit the besieged Syrian city, although restrictions on men leaving have  raised fears of another Srebrenica. Kim Sengupta reports on small signs of progress at the UN peace talks

Women and children trapped by the Syrian regime’s siege of the city of Homs will be given a chance to leave, in the first tentative signs of a breakthrough at the Geneva negotiations between the Assad regime and rebels.

The development was announced by Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations mediator, at the end of the second day of talks between the two sides as part of “confidence building measures” before moving on to attempts to form a transitional administration.

Men trying to get out of the same area in Homs would be allowed to do so only after a list of names had been submitted to Bashar al-Assad’s security forces to ensure they “were not members of armed groups”, Mr Brahimi said. He denied there were dangers of parallels with Srebrenica in the Balkans in 1995, when a similar list was used by Serbian troops to arrest and kill thousands of Bosnian men and boys.

“There are so many horrible things happening in Syria, we don’t want a Srebrenica situation to add to this,” said the mediator, who added that efforts were continuing to secure the release of prisoners.

The opposition produced a list of more than 47,000 detainees they wanted freed, about 2,500 of whom were women and children, they said. In turn they agreed to provide the names of those being held by the rebels to Mr Brahimi and the delegation from Damascus.

However, disputes began immediately on the issue. Monzer Akbik, the chief of staff to the head of the opposition coalition, said of the detainee release: “We are seeking the end of the nightmare of our country. There are thousands of families wondering where their loved ones are. They are crying every day wondering if they are being tortured. Their loved ones have been kidnapped by the regime police forces and they don’t know where they are.”

Syrians return to their badly damaged homes as ceasefire makes streets safe again

But Faisal Makdad, the deputy foreign  minister, insisted that “we don’t hold any children prisoners at all. We categorically deny that.” He claimed that the list supplied by the opposition was full of errors. “I have studied this list; 60 to 70 per cent of the names are not in prison, 20 per cent have already been freed. About the rest, we don’t know anything.”

There were also fundamental difficulties with the concept of prisoner exchanges. The coalition representing political opponents of the Assad regime have no power over extremist Islamist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Isis) and Jabhat al-Nusra, which hold most of the hostages.

However, officials of the international states which have been backing the opposing sides in the conflict said the fact that the talks had not collapsed, as some had predicted, and that limited progress was being made, were significant signs of encouragement.

Attempts were continuing last night to get around a stalemate over plans to establish a humanitarian corridor into Homs. Convoys carrying food and medicine were stuck on the road waiting for permission from Damascus to pass regime checkpoints and continue to the city. Senior international diplomats and officials, including Mr Brahimi, had stated that the aid could reach civilians trapped amid the relentless violence within 48 hours.

The Russians and the Americans had been working behind the scenes, speaking to both sides, and the International Committee of the Red Cross was ready to move. But the regime is said to have professed surprise at the proposal, claiming it knew nothing about it; this was directly contradicted by senior diplomatic sources who insist that the Russians had presented the plan to Damascus more than a week ago.

UK plans to take in the ‘most vulnerable’ Syrian refugees

Mr Brahimi acknowledged that the failure to get aid into Homs had disappointed him. But he stressed that “to bring Syria out of the ditch where it has fallen will take time.” More than 130,000 people have died so far in the civil war, while nine million have been made homeless inside and outside the country.

Homs had a population of more than one million before the start of the conflict. Many have died, many more have fled, and about 800 families are now trapped with little access to food, medicine and water.

Mr Makdad maintained that his administration had been trying to send essential supplies to help the beleaguered residents. Not as much as he would have liked had got through, for two reasons: “The armed groups had kept firing at those who tried to take in aid and the weather has not been conducive to making the movement.

“As for the trapped women and children, that was the result of the armed groups not allowing a single child to get out. Now if they allow the women and children to get out, we shall provide them with shelter, food and all the needs of life.”

Syrian government forces patrol in the Khalidiyah neighbourhood of the central city of Homs; the city had a population of more than one million before the start of the conflict Syrian government forces patrol in the Khalidiyah neighbourhood of the central city of Homs; the city had a population of more than one million before the start of the conflict (AFP/Getty)
Influential members of the regime’s delegation objected to the whole concept of the Homs aid efforts. Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to President Bashar al-Assad and a member of the delegation, declared: “This is a matter which should be dealt with through the Red Cross, Red Crescent, though OCHA [the UN’s Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs]. This is not something for this conference with [political] delegations. We do not like this ‘humanitarian corridor’ because they can also be used as military corridors to get control.

Syria: Splits among rebels allow rare lull in violence but the people, inured to war, expect little from the peace talks  

“Anyway, our local authorities are doing all they can, not just for the people of Homs, but Aleppo, Daraa, Adra. The other side came here to discuss a small problem here or there, we came here to discuss the future and security of Syria, not to bring relief to a region here or there.” The Information Minister, Omran Zoabi, added: “They proposed Homs. We say all Syrian cities are equal and as important”.

The talks are now due to move on to the setting up of a “transitional administration”, the key aim of the Geneva I Communique, issued after a previous meeting on Syria. The rebels and their Western backers have consistently held that Mr Assad can play no part in this; the regime is equally adamant that the President’s position is sacrosanct.

Still, the current talks are expected to move on to discussions about a transitional government. Both sides say they will take part in the talks on transition, but Mr Zoabi declared on their eve: “If anybody thinks there is a possibility of the stepping down of President Bashar al-Assad, they live in a mythical world and let them stay in Alice in Wonderland.”

Voices
A Russian hunter at the Medved bear-hunting lodge in Siberia
Save the tigerWildlife charities turn to those who kill animals to help save them
News
Davis says: 'My career has been about filling a niche - there were fewer short actors and fewer roles – but now I'm being offered all kinds of things'
PeopleWarwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
News
i100
Sport
Frank Lampard will pass Billy Wright and equal Bobby Charton’s caps tally of 106 caps against
sportFormer Chelsea midfielder in Etihad stopgap before New York contract
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The first film introduced Daniel Radcliffe to our screens, pictured here as he prepares to board the train to Hogwarts for the first time.
booksHow reading Harry Potter helps children grow up to be gay-friendly
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Aladdin is performed at the Tony Awards in New York in June
theatreBrit producer Lythgoe makes kids' musical comedy a Los Angeles hit
Sport
Usain Bolt of Jamaica smiles and shakes hands with a competitor after Jamaica won their first heat in the men's 4x100m relay
sport
News
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
Life and Style
A small bag of the drug Ecstasy
Health
Life and Style
Floral-print swim shorts, £26, by Topman, topman.com; sunglasses, £215, by Paul Smith, mpaulsmith.co.uk
FashionBag yourself the perfect pair
News
news
News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
Extras
indybest
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

(Senior) IT Support Engineer - 1st-3rd Line Support

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful IT service provider that has bee...

Wind Farm Civil Design Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principal Marine Mechanical Engineer

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principle Geotechnical Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

How has your club fared in summer sales?

Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

The best swim shorts for men

Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup