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Syria evacuates dozens of civilians from the besieged city of Homs

The evacuation of the besieged city of Homs is set to continue on Saturday in the second day of a three-day ceasefire. Around 80 of an estimated 2,500 civilians have left the city so far.

A second group of Syrian civilians are expected to leave Homs on Saturday, a day after government forces granted 83 children, women and elderly men safe passage from the old city of Homs.

A UN spokesman said the civilians were escorted by United Nations and Syrian Arab Red Crescent staff to a meeting point outside the city, where humanitarian workers, soldiers and police were waiting. Many appeared frail and exhausted.

World Food Programme spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs reported that many had been living on leaves, grass and olives in order to survive.

"There are signs of malnutrition, for some of them it is very obvious," Byrs said. "Some said they have not eaten bread for five months.

The rebel-held old city has been surrounded by government forces for a year and a half, trapping residents and blocking the delivery of food and humanitarian aid.

The evacuation was made possible under an

agreement between government and opposition forces

that included a three-day ceasefire. It excludes men ages 15 to 55, who are seen as likely fighters.

It was agreed that humanitarian supplies would be delivered to the estimated 2,500 people still inside the city.

Cautious optimism

The deal has been tentatively heralded as the first concrete results of international

peace talks in Geneva

which were launched two weeks ago.

UN aid chief Valerie Amos welcomed Friday's operation as "a breakthrough and a small but important step towards with compliance with international humanitarian law," UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said.

However, "she said she understood that many civilians, sick and wounded, remain in the Old City of Homs," Haq said.

The future for those granted permission to leave the city also remains unclear.

Homs Governor Talal al-Barazi said reception centers capable of holding up to 400 people, had been set up to receive and treat people leaving the old city, although those evacuated were free to go wherever they liked.

"The atmosphere is positive" Barrazi said, adding that the first batch of food supplies will be sent to rebel-held areas on Saturday.

Activists have expressed concern, however, that those freed could be arrested by government forces at a later date.

Government to rejoin Geneva II talk

Homs was one of the first areas to rise up against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011 and has been particularly hard hit by the conflict.

Providing aid to the city 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

confirmed it would send a delegation to the peace talks' next round,

scheduled to start on February 10.

A key opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, had already pledged to attend the next round of 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.

ccp/av (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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