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Red Cross chief alarmed by chaotic Homs evacuation

Last Updated: Saturday, February 15, 2014 - 22:58

Geneva: Red Cross chief Peter Maurer voiced alarm Saturday over the chaos surrounding the evacuation from the besieged Syrian city of Homs, urging the warring sides to respect basic humanitarian law.

"I am concerned about the conditions in which the evacuations took place and about the number of people who remain trapped and unaided between front lines throughout Syria," Maurer, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said in a statement.

"Humanitarians working in Homs over the last week were operating in an extremely challenging security environment," he said, lamenting that neither side in the conflict had provided "firm commitment to respect the basic principles of international humanitarian law."

The UN-led humanitarian operation to help thousands trapped in rebel-held areas of Homs besieged by the Syrian government for 600 days has been hailed as a success for getting some aid in and managing to evacuate some 1,400 people.

But the humanitarian exit operation -- the result of months of painstaking UN-brokered negotiations -- has been marred by the fragile ceasefire underpinning it.

Aid convoys into the areas, where people had been facing daily bombardment and dwindling supplies, came under attack and 14 people were killed by shelling.

Maurer stressed Saturday that aid workers can provide desperately needed assistance only if all parties agree to respect and protect them, "as required by international humanitarian law".

"The situation in Homs and other besieged areas is highly complex, but the basic tenets of the law are simple," he said, stressing the responsibility of the parties to provide for the basic needs of civilians under their control or ensure that aid workers can do so.

Pointing out that more than a million people in Syria are living in "extremely difficult conditions", he said groups like the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent must be able to go in and "have direct contact with people affected by the fighting in order to assess their needs."

More than 136,000 people have been killed in nearly three years of civil war in Syria and millions have been forced to flee their homes.

Maurer said the organisations were ready to participate in further evacuations of Syrian civilians, but only if the warring parties "agree to guarantee safe passage to ICRC and SARC teams at all times".

The ICRC is the guardian of the Geneva Conventions on warfare, and observers said it had been reluctant to get involved in the Homs evacuation because "it is not by any stretch of the imagination the way this should be done."

Maurer also referred to the hundreds of male evacuees who were detained in a bid by the regime to weed out "terrorists".

"Anyone detained after an evacuation must be treated humanely at all times and be allowed to contact their families," Maurer said, echoing calls from the United Nations.

Respecting humanitarian law is "non-negotiable", he said, stressing that "Syria is no exception."

First Published: Saturday, February 15, 2014 - 22:58
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