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.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvReview: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series Fortitude has begun with a feature-length special
Voices
Three people wearing masks depicting Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg
voicesPolitics is in the gutter – but there is an alternative, says Nigel Farage
Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
News
i100
News
people
Sport
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballThe more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Life and Style
Vote green: Benoit Berenger at The Duke of Cambridge in London's Islington
food + drinkBanishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turn over a new leaf
News
Joel Grey (left) poses next to a poster featuring his character in the film
peopleActor Joel Grey comes out at 82
News
i100
News
business
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

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee