* Some 2,500 civilians trapped in rebel-held Old City
* Brahimi had hoped for breakthrough at Syria talks
* Each side makes demands, leaving aid agencies in quandary
By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA, Jan 31 Some 2,500 Syrians trapped in the
besieged Old City of Homs have become pawns in complex
negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition, with
aid agencies caught up in an ethical dilemma amid reports of
U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, who ran week-long talks that
ended without progress on Friday, had hoped to
broker a deal paving the way for delivering food and medical
supplies to rebel-held Homs and the evacuation of women and
But each side made demands preventing a breakthrough and
putting U.N. agencies, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and
the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in an
"It is hugely complicated. There was no quick win this
week," a U.N. official told Reuters on condition of not being
The government delegation of President Bashar al-Assad has
said that women and children may leave the Old City, but that
the names of men must be given before men are allowed to exit,
according to Brahimi, calling it a "precondition".
The demand has raised alarm bells at U.N. agencies and the
Red Cross and Red Crescent, since activists say men evacuated
under a previous deal, in the besieged town of Mouadamiya, were
immediately arrested by Syrian intelligence.
"It has the potential to be a sanctioned massacre," the U.N.
official said of the dilemma over Homs.
"Women would be under pressure not to leave, and if they
have to give the names of their husbands or fathers left behind,
it would be a death sentence."
Under international humanitarian law, all sides to a
conflict must allow civilians in besieged areas to leave for
safer areas, on a voluntary basis. They must also protect
civilians who stay behind and ease the safe passage of aid.
The Syrian opposition says the government's offer would
force women and children to become homeless in return for food.
U.N. aid chief Valerie Amos voiced frustration at the talks
ending on Friday without agreement on humanitarian pauses.
"Representatives of both sides continue to work out how to
get aid into Homs Old City and evacuate women, children and the
elderly. This must happen immediately," she said.
A U.S. State Department spokesman, referring to the Homs
siege earlier this week, said: "We've seen the regime do this
before, as part of its despicable 'kneel or starve' campaign."
BREAKING UP FAMILIES
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent - whose volunteers deliver most
aid for the U.N. and other agencies in Syria - said on its
Facebook page this week that it was ready to help in line with
its principles of neutrality but also voiced some reservations.
"We also believe that getting women and children out is not
the best solution since it does not include all the civilians
and its breaks up the families and might increase pressure on
the civilians left inside," it said.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem told reporters
after the talks wound up on Friday: "Three times there were
attempts to allow civilians to leave Old Homs and the Red Cross
"What delayed the dispatch of those shipments is one of main
leaders of the opposition in Old Homs threatening (that) if
shipments of convoys enter, they will open fire. Their demand is
not shipment of supplies, what they want is to leave with their
weapons, with the civilians through a safe corridor to another
village," Moualem added.
The opposition says it has given the United Nations all
necessary guarantees and access is entirely up to the
Dibeh Fakhr, ICRC spokeswoman in Geneva, said that the ICRC
had not had access to the Old City of Homs since November 2012.
"Since then, and despite our many attempts, we never
managed, together with SARC, to get the necessary authorisation
and guarantees from all parties involved to access the Old City
in order to bring in much-needed assistance and look into
potential evacuation of civilians who would have expressed their
wish to leave," she told Reuters on Friday.
Brahimi, speaking to reporters on Thursday, admitted that
the issue of access to Homs was thorny.
"What goes first, do you get supplies in and then allow
people to come out? Or get people out first and then see about
getting aid in? This is unfortunately civil war," he said.
Brahimi, a former foreign minister of Algeria, was asked
last Sunday whether he feared a repeat of Srebrenica in Bosnia.
Some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys ordered for security
reasons to leave a U.N. peacekeepers compound in 1995 were
killed when Bosnian Serb forces overran the U.N.-designated
"safe area" it and separated Muslim men from women. The men and
boys were then bussed to execution sites.
"No, we don't have that fear. No, I don't think we have that
fear. Horrible things are happening in Syria, we don't want
anything like Srebrenica in addition to all that."
(Additional reporting by Tom Miles)