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June 22, 2017

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Civilians evacuated from besieged Homs

HOMS, Syria -- The first group of trapped civilians was evacuated from besieged rebel-held areas of Syria's third-largest city Homs on Friday, as Damascus finally confirmed it will join new peace talks next week.

Some 12 civilians came out on the first bus from the rebel enclave, which has been under tight army blockade for more than 600 days, an AFP correspondent reported.

The evacuation is part of a surprise deal brokered by the United Nations between the two sides on Thursday after months of negotiations that will also see desperately needed aid delivered to the rebel enclave during a "humanitarian pause" in fighting.

But the first consignment of food and medicine will not go in until Saturday, Homs' governor Talal Barazi told AFP.

The relief supplies had been held up in a U.N. warehouse in a government-held area of Homs just kilometers away from the rebel-held Old City while the negotiations for relief access dragged on.

At least 1,200 children, women and elderly people are among some 2,500 civilians who have been trapped under siege, surviving on little but olives and wild cereals, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says.

Most of those on the first bus out were elderly, an activist inside the rebel enclave, who gave his name only as Ghaith, told AFP via the Internet.

"According to our advice from the U.N., the number of people expected to leave today (Friday) is nearly 200," the Homs governor told AFP.

"Tomorrow (Saturday), the first consignment of food and other relief supplies will reach those in need in the Old City," Barazi said.

The rebel-held Old City and adjacent neighborhoods have come under near-daily shelling since the army imposed a blockade in June 2012 after recapturing most of Homs in a counter-offensive launched that February.

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