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UN welcomes deal to let civilians leave besieged Syrian city of Homs

The UN has welcomed reports Syria's government has agreed to allow civilians to leave the besieged city of Homs. The body said it is ready to send in aid once it receives the go-ahead from both sides of the conflict.

United Nations spokesman Farhan Haq praised the deal to enforce a "humanitarian pause" in fighting in the flashpoint Syrian city from Friday.

Haq made clear, however, that while the UN was poised to send in aid, it did not yet have confirmation from the government and opposition that the agreement had come into force.

"The United Nations and humanitarian partners had pre-positioned food, medical and other basic supplies on the outskirts of Homs ready for immediate delivery as soon as the green light was given by the parties for safe passage," the UN spokesman said in a statement.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government announced Thursday that it had reached a deal to allow civilians to leave besieged parts of Homs and to permit UN humanitarian relief convoys to enter.

"The agreement will allow innocent civilians surrounded in the neighborhoods of Old Homs - among them women and children, the wounded and the elderly - an opportunity to leave as soon as the necessary arrangements, in addition to offering them humanitarian aid," said a Syrian Foreign Ministry statement, cited on Syria TV.

Activists claim around 2,500 civilians have been trapped inside the rebel-held old city of Homs for over a year. They are said to be struggling with hunger and malnourishment. The remainder of the city is largely under the control of government forces.

US voices scepticism

If the agreement goes ahead, it would mark the first positive result since international powers gathered for inconclusive peace talks in Geneva last month.

While welcoming the deal, the US also voiced concern over the Syrian government's intentions.

"Given that the regime, up to this point, has described just about anybody living in opposition territory as a terrorist - and has attacked them as such - you know, we have reason on the basis of history to be very sceptical," US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said in New York.

She added that Washington was "very concerned about anybody who falls into regime hands who comes from a part of the country that has been under opposition control."

Fresh assault on Aleppo

Separately on Thursday rebels in the northern province of Aleppo declared a new push to capture a central prison and the Kweiras military air base to the east.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said al Qaida-linked Nusra Front fighters and the Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham subsequently took over large parts of the prison, freeing several hundred prisoners.

It said dozens of members of the security forces were killed in clashes.

The operation follows an escalated air assault by government forces over rebel-held areas of Aleppo, which began last week.

At least 130,000 people have been killed since an uprising against President Assad began in March 2011. More than 2.3 million people have fled the country to seek refuge abroad.

The second round of Syria peace talks is scheduled to begin February 10 in Geneva.

ccp/lw (AP, dpa, Reuters)

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