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Homs evacuations continue amid delicate ceasefire

February 10, 2014 at 6:14 PM EST
Aid officials rushed to evacuate more citizens as a humanitarian ceasefire in the blockaded Syrian city of Homs was extended three more days. Judy Woodruff talks to Patrick McDonnell, reporting from Damascus for the Los Angeles Times, about violence against the evacuation convoy and conditions for the people left in Homs.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to the humanitarian situation in Syria.

Aid officials rushed today to evacuate more women, children and elderly from the blockaded city of Homs after a fragile cease-fire there was extended for three more days.

Patrick McDonnell has been reporting on the evacuation in Homs for the Los Angeles Times. He spoke to us via Skype from Damascus just a short time ago.

Patrick McDonnell, thank you very much for talking with us.

Now that we know the cease-fire is being extended, what is the situation in Homs?

PATRICK MCDONNELL, Los Angeles Times: Well, the situation in the Old City is extremely delicate.

As you know, there was a three-day operation in which something like more than 700 people were evacuated from old Homs. Some aid was delivered. However, there were extensive mortar attacks and gunfire attacks on the convoy. And a number of civilians were killed, at least 10, to our knowledge.

So it is a very delicate operation, but it has gotten a lot of international attention. It has been mentioned in Geneva. And I think the government of Syria, which is looking for some international support from the United Nations, really wants it to work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what do you know about what people there on the ground are saying, what they believe about how it’s going?

PATRICK MCDONNELL: Frankly, among government supporters, there is quite a lot of resentment about the fact that the food is being brought in to rebels who, in the view of many people in government-controlled areas, have, you know, wrought havoc on the country.

So there’s quite a lot of resentment on this. So I think the government is hearing that. I was there last night when they brought up some of the people from the Old City, and we were surprised to see quite a few young men fighting, even more than 100. And I was standing with some Syrian army people. They were upset to see young men coming out.

And so there is a mixed opinion. At the same time, I think there’s a recognition that the Syrian government is looking, you know, for — is looking for some international support. And they’re under pressure to provide humanitarian aid. And this is one way to do it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We know there has been shooting, there has been violence since the cease-fire was supposed to have gotten under way. Who is responsible for that?

PATRICK MCDONNELL: Well, I think, you know, like a lot of things in Syria, really, it is a bit of an imponderable. Each side blames the other. Each side theoretically would have reasons to want to fire on the convoys.

So we really don’t know. I hate to give that answer, but I don’t think we know definitively. Listen, it’s been more than six months since the chemical attacks outside of Damascus here, or something like six months. We still don’t know definitively who did those.

So it’s been a lot of — massacres, it’s been hard to know who did them. So, again, these mortar strikes and these attacks on the convoys, just don’t — we have another situation where each side blames the other and who exactly was responsible is not something we can ascertain.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tell us who is in Homs right now. What are the conditions like for people living there?

PATRICK MCDONNELL: The conditions are obviously very, very primitive.

We did talk to some people who came out particularly the first day. There was some (AUDIO GAP) food, but not a lot of food. People talked about — it is getting a little bit warmer here. There are some greens growing wild in lots and, you know, in yards.

People are afraid to leave their homes. One gentleman told me, “I was afraid if I stuck my head out the window, it could be blasted into a dozen pieces.”

So it’s obviously very grim. There is very little medical care. Until the aid went in on Saturday, there hadn’t been a real — an official delivery of aid for more than 18 months. So the situation in there is very grim. The estimates are, there were something like 2,500 people in there, although it was a rough estimate.

And they have gotten about 700 out. So I think the aid workers suspect there’s about 200 in there. Some of them are elderly and infirm. There is a Christian population of perhaps 100 people in there, according to some clerics I spoke to.

And many of them are elderly and having trouble getting to the spot where they are being picked up. So there are — no Christians came out in those three days, so they’re hoping to get some of them out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, that was one of my questions about — is everyone who would like to get out able to get out, especially the elderly, the disabled?  I had read that there were people with disabilities who were killed.

PATRICK MCDONNELL: Quite possibly, there were. We don’t know about who those 10 or so people who were killed. Very possibly, there were.

No, I think it is extremely difficult. We were told again by — I mean, it’s very difficult. It was an extraordinarily difficult operation to arrange. And they managed to find a neutral point to pick people up, and it kind of worked. But there was shelling.

But, still, there are — there are — we have been told it’s more than a half-hour walk for some people, including walks through tunnels. And, remember, there are many rebel factions inside the Old City, and not all of them are necessarily on board with this truce.

So I think that there is going to be an effort to kind of reach out a lot more to people who are elderly or disabled, so that they can get closer to them during the evacuation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Patrick McDonnell, following what is supposed to have been a cease-fire attempt to evacuate people, get relief into the city of Homs, thank you.

PATRICK MCDONNELL: My pleasure, Judy.