State media: Syria allows some men to leave Homs

BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian government on Tuesday allowed over a hundred men of fighting age to leave rebel-held areas of the besieged city of Homs after they were questioned and cleared of rebel links, state media said.

The report came as aid workers were rushing to make use of an extended cease-fire, which first went into effect on Friday, and evacuate more people from the flashpoint city. In Geneva, meanwhile, government and opposition leaders met for another round of face-to-face negotiations on how to halt the country's civil war.

The governor of Homs, Talal Barrazi, was quoted by Syrian state TV as saying the 111 men, aged between 16 and 54, have left the city during the U.N.-brokered cease-fire on Monday. The men were "cleared after they handed themselves over to the authorities," said the governor.

Before the evacuations began, authorities said that gunmen who surrender and renounce violence will be allowed to return to normal life.

Since Friday, 1,151 civilians, mostly women, children and elderly have been evacuated from the city, Syria's third largest. Homs has been under government siege for more than a year.

Khaled Erksoussi, the Damascus-based head of operations of the Syrian Red Crescent that is assisting in the Homs evacuation, said those who leave the city get a health check once they exit. They also receive a food parcel and some money for transportation to a destination of their choice within Syria, Erksoussi said. Most people choose to stay with relatives in other parts of Homs, and for those who have nowhere to stay, the SRC has opened several makeshift shelters in safer parts of the city.

In a statement Tuesday, the U.N. child agency said there were at least 500 children among those brought out of the city's central, rebel-held areas known as Old Homs. UNICEF said its staff on the ground reported that the children were "terrified, frail and emaciated" when they left the city.

"Mothers were anxious, and many were crying," a statement from the UNICEF said. "All they wanted was for their children to reach safety." About 20 pregnant women were have also been evacuated, UNICEF added.

The agency's staff accompanied children identified as vulnerable until they reached safety to ensure they were not separated from their families, the statement also said, adding that children were provided with "nutrition supplements." It said 190 children received vaccination against polio, Hepatitis B, measles and other preventable diseases.

Before the humanitarian operation began, the U.N. agency estimated there were more than 1,000 children trapped in Homs.

The evacuation effort has laid bare the desperation that has struck the besieged areas since the conflict began nearly three years ago.

Homs was one of the first cities to rise up against President Bashar Assad in March 2011, and while government forces have retaken much of the city, several rebel-held districts in its historic old center have been under a suffocating blockade for more than a year, causing hunger and widespread suffering among trapped civilians.

The original truce ran from Friday to Sunday, but the continued shelling and shooting between the two sides severely limited efforts. Eleven people were killed by the fighting and an aid worker was injured in the attack on the convoy on Saturday.

U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said on Monday that the humanitarian pause was extended for three more days. She sharply criticized the two sides in the conflict, saying U.N. and Syrian Red Crescent workers were "deliberately targeted."