A second round of UN-sponsored peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition is due to start in Geneva. It follows a three-day cease-fire in the city of Homs which allowed hundreds of civilians to escape.
The end of a three-day cease-fire arranged by UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi to allow civilians trapped in the ancient, rebel-held area of Old Homs to leave, has coincided with the start of another round of UN-mediated negotiations in Switzerland on Monday.
The city of Homs was one of the first areas to rebel against the government of President Bashar al-Assad in 2011. It has been hard hit by ground and air attacks.
Over the past year the government has regained control over most of the city - except for neighborhoods in the historic center. Some 2,500 civilians have been trapped without supplies for many months.
More than 600 women, children and older men were evacuated from Homs by UN and Syrian Red Crescent workers despite mortar fire and shooting on Sunday. The Syrian government blamed the attacks on rebels, who say the regime was responsible.
Aid workers were also able to take in relief supplies of food, water and medicine to Homs.
Delegations in Geneva
The Syrian government delegation arrived in Geneva on Sunday night. UN-mediated talks with the opposition National Coalition are expected to last for five days.
But there are a number of opposition groups refusing to back the talks. On Sunday, one of the largest Syrian opposition groups, the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, and the Syrian National Council - a coalition of Syrian opposition groups based in Istanbul - said they would not participate.
Most of the rebel groups fighting inside Syria, including the Islamic Front and the Syrian Revolutionaries' Front, have refused to support the talks. This all casts doubt over the National Coalition's ability to hold various armed parties to a ceasefire.
But opposition delegate and head of the coalition's legal committee, Haitham al-Maleh, said: "Our talks with other political, social and national groups within and outside Syria are ongoing. We are committed to our delegation representing all of Syria, not just one body."
Coalition president Ahmed al-Jarba called for Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa to be given leadership of the regime's delegation, ahead of former lead negotiators Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem and Deputy Foreign Minister Feisal al-Meqdad.
Al-Jarba described al-Sharaa as one of the few officials to have "credibility" and trust among the opposition.
A UN moderator was quoted by the dpa news agency as saying: "al-Moallem was so divisive in the first round, his presence will almost certainly prevent the two sides from making progress in the second."
The first round of talks in Geneva ended on Friday January 31 without a concrete strategy on ending the violence, agreeing on a political transition or ensuring humanitarian aid.
Barrel bombs on Aleppo
In the northern city of Aleppo, Syrian government aircraft dropped makeshift barrel bombs on rebel-held districts on Sunday, according to the activist group, the Aleppo Media Center. More than 15 people in the neighborhood of Haydariyeh were reported killed.
Parts of Aleppo were seized by rebels in 2012. The government has launched a series of attacks trying to retake control. The use of barrel bombs - crude weapons comprising cylinders packed with explosives and metal fragments - dropped out of aircraft, has been condemned by opposition and humanitarian organisations.
jm/jr (dpa, AP)