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Homs evacuation 'begins,' Syria government commits to Geneva II

Syrian state media have reported both that efforts to evacuate people from the besieged old city of Homs are under way, and that the government will attend the next round of the "Geneva II" peace talks.

State television in Syria reported that the evacuation of Homs' besieged, rebel-held historic city center began on Friday. Rebels and government troops

agreed to a ceasefire on Thursday

in order to allow humanitarian aid into the old city.

"Moments ago, the evacuation of civilian children, women and elderly began," the Syrian bulletin said.

The governor of the central province of Homs, Talal Barrazi, said that men aged 15 to 55 - those most likely to be combatants - would not be included. He also said that while people were free to go where they wished, his governorate had prepared a shelter to house around 400.

"We hope this first step will succeed and will continue tomorrow and after tomorrow and so on, to ensure safe exit to all civilians who want to leave the old city," Barrazi said.

The historic old town is one of comparatively few areas of Homs not under government control.

US cautious, Russia lauds landmark

US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki had welcomed the deal to bring humanitarian aid into Homs. However, she cautioned against using aid as "a bargaining chip" and said that "an evacuation is not a substitute for the safe, regular and unfettered delivery of humanitarian assistance to those in need."

Russia's foreign ministry on Friday called the agreement a landmark deal.

"The result of difficult, multi-day negotiations ... is an agreement to cease fire for three days and provide humanitarian support fo the residents of the Old City of Homs," the foreign ministry said in a statement.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

recently urged the US and Russia

to use their influence on either side of the conflict to speed up the negotiating process in Syria.

Government to rejoin Geneva II talks

Providing aid to residents of Homs was one of the goals of the inconclusive first round of "Geneva II" peace talks that brought together the opposing sides in Syria's civil war late in January.

On Friday, Syria's foreign ministry also confirmed that it would send a delegation to the peace talks' next round, scheduled to start on February 10.

"The delegation confirms the continuation of efforts made at the first round of the conference," Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad was quoted as saying by the official SANA news agency.

A key opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, had already pledged to attend the next round of talks. The UN-Arab League special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said he had identified

"a little bit of common ground"

after the first round of Geneva II talks.

The negotiations are seeking solutions to almost three years of conflict in Syria that have claimed more than 130,000 lives and forced more than 2.3 million Syrians to flee the country.

msh/ipj (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)

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