U.N. aid convoy struck in Syria's besieged Homs
BEIRUT (Reuters) - An aid convoy came under fire in a besieged rebel district of Homs on Saturday, threatening a United Nations-led operation to bring food and medicine to 2,500 people and evacuate civilians trapped by months of fighting in the Syrian city.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) said mortar fire landed close to its convoy and shots were fired at its trucks, wounding one of its drivers.
At least nine Red Crescent and U.N. vehicles were holed up in the city for several hours after dark when the explosions struck, but the team managed to pull out shortly before 10 pm (2000 GMT), leaving two damaged trucks, the Red Crescent said.
"Although the team was shelled and fired upon we managed to deliver 250 food parcels (and) 190 hygiene kits and chronic disease medicines," it said.
Syrian authorities blamed the attacks on rebels but opposition activists accused President Bashar al-Assad's forces of carrying them out, as well as earlier mortar fire which delayed the start of the operation on Saturday morning.
The violence threatens to unravel a humanitarian deal for Homs which was the first concrete result of talks launched two weeks ago in Geneva to try to end the country's civil war.
The conflict has killed 130,000 people, driven millions from their homes and devastated whole districts of Syrian cities - particularly Homs, a center of protest when the 2011 uprising against 40 years of Assad family rule first erupted.
At the Geneva peace talks, which resume on Monday, international mediator Lakhdar Brahimi has been pushing for agreement on aid deliveries and prisoner releases, hoping that progress on those issues could build momentum to address the far more contentious question of political transition.
But even the humanitarian talks have taken time and delivered only modest achievements, the first of which was the evacuation on Friday of 83 women, children and elderly men from the Old City. Aid workers said many showed signs of malnutrition.
Sunday is due to be the final day of a three-day ceasefire which Russia, a close supporter of Assad, said had been agreed to allow the aid to be brought in and civilians moved out.
Video footage of Saturday's incident published by activists showed eight white cars with U.N. markings and a truck stopped at a narrow street corner, already strewn with rubble.
A man with a blood on his face was led into a nearby building, before a blast struck on the far side of the truck. It was not clear how much damage was caused by the explosion.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors violence in Syria, said five people, including two rebel fighters, were killed 20 wounded by mortar fire in Old Homs.
Syria's opposition National Coalition said the aid operation in Homs was no substitute for lifting the siege on the rebel-held area, warning that the evacuation of civilians could be "a prelude to the regime destroying the city with the remaining residents trapped inside".
"It is vital to remember that the regime has used similar tactics in the past to change the demographics of some areas in Syria," the Coalition said in a statement. "It has used similar deals to buy time to strengthen its positions on the ground and to kill more civilians."
While the convoy was delivering food and medicine in Homs, humanitarian supplies to the Palestinian district of Yarmouk in south Damascus were suspended after clashes broke out there.
The U.N. agency for Palestinian Refugees UNRWA says it has distributed more than 6,000 food parcels in Yarmouk since mid-January, a level it says falls well short of the needs of 18,000 residents after months of hunger and deprivation.
"One food parcel feeds a family of up to eight for 10 days," UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness said. "We urgently need humanitarian access to continue with these supplies to the many women, children, babies, the elderly, the sick, the dying who desperately need them."
Elsewhere in Syria, 20 people were killed in Aleppo by barrel bombs dropped by Syrian army helicopters, the Britain-based Observatory said.
The improvised explosives, often rolled out of the cargo holds of aircraft, cause widespread and indiscriminate damage.
Hundreds of people have been killed in such attacks in Aleppo city this year and many thousands have fled rebel-held districts, seeking shelter in government-controlled neighborhoods or trying to cross the Turkish border.
The air offensive has also helped Assad's forces take back some ground in Syria's biggest city, which has been contested since the summer of 2012 when rebel forces swept in from Aleppo's rural hinterland to take over around half the city.
Since then the army, backed by Iranian military commanders, Lebanon's Hezbollah militia and Iraqi Shi'ite fighters, has taken back territory around Damascus and Homs.
Infighting between rival rebel forces, including foreign Sunni Muslim jihadis and al Qaeda-linked fighters, has also helped Assad's counter-offensive.
Several Islamist groups have been fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an al Qaeda splinter group, across northern and eastern Syria for several weeks.
On Saturday the Britain-based Observatory reported heavy fighting in the eastern province of Deir al-Zor after the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and another Islamist group, Ahrar al-Sham, attacked ISIL, accusing it of seizing control of oil fields and other key installations.
It said at least 20 people were killed in fierce clashes in Deir al-Zor city and elsewhere in the province, which borders the Iraqi province of Anbar where militants including ISIL fighters overran two cities last month.
Syria's uprising turned into an armed insurgency after demonstrations were put down with force and has now degenerated into a civil war pitting regional Sunni and Shi'ite powers against each other and destabilizing the wider Middle East.
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