11:49 am - Sunday November 15, 2015

Violence Rocks Syrian City During Another Civilian Evacuation Attempt

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HOMS, Syria—An attempt to implement the second phase of a United Nations plan to evacuate civilians and take desperately needed aid into a besieged rebel-held area in this central Syrian city was marred by violence on Saturday, with one U.N. official describing what happened as “a day in hell.”

One day after succeeding in evacuating 83 people trapped in sections of central Homs for more than 18 months, a convoy comprising U.N. and Syrian Arab Red Crescent vehicles was attacked with mortars and gunfire. The attack killed at least five people on the rebel side, wounded one Syrian aid worker and forced a U.N. team including its top representative in the country to remain trapped in the rebel-held sector for hours.
Opposition activists and one member of the aid team that went into the rebel-held area blamed pro-regime forces for the attack, while Homs Governor Talal al Barazi and several security and military officials blamed the rebels.

The aid trucks had attempted to take food rations, flour, medicine for chronic diseases and hygiene kits into the besieged parts of Homs, which encompass sections of the downtown area and what’s known as the Old Quarter.

The plan was also to evacuate more civilians out of the estimated 2,500 believed still to be in these rebel-held areas. But only some of the aid ultimately went in, no civilians were able to leave and the entire mission was overshadowed by the ordeal of the U.N. team and aid workers.

At almost 9:00 p.m. local time, a convoy of nine U.N. vehicles carrying the aid team and officials emerged from the rebel-held area and crossed the frontline amid the sound of heavy explosions and gunfire late Saturday night. The exterior of many of the armored vehicles were dented by what appeared to be shrapnel and gunfire.

“This was a day in hell,” Yacoub El Hillo, head of the U.N.’s aid and development effort in Syria, told his team members afterward as they arrived at the relative safety of a hotel in a regime-controlled section of Homs.

Mr. El Hillo said several people were killed while waiting to receive aid.

“This is what the people of that place live every day. This is the life they live and we saw a glimpse of it today,” said a visibly emotional Mr. El Hillo. He then went on to speak about the ordeal of those civilians trapped in the rebel-held sections of central Homs.

“Our responsibility is to take that message out: there are women, there are children, there are elderly, there are sick people, there are people who are terminally sick, but nothing can be done for them and they are inside where we were,” he said.

“And with this little opportunity to do something, the mortars never stopped, never stopped.”

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