A rush to evacuate as truce extended in Syria city

Published on NewsOK Modified: February 10, 2014 at 6:02 pm •  Published: February 10, 2014
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Erksoussi echoed the worries of activists who said they fear that once civilians are evacuated, fighting will only escalate. "We know that not all civilians will leave, but the fighting parties will claim that they did and step up the shelling and shooting," he said by phone from Damascus.

Around a quarter-million people in 40 districts besieged by government forces have been cut off from humanitarian aid for months, said Ertharin Cousin, executive director of the U.N.'s World Food Program. In the Yarmouk area, on Damascus' southern fringe, activists estimate over 100 people have died from hunger-related illness and a lack of medical aid because of a year-long blockade.

At the United Nations, Russia threatened to veto Western efforts to push through a Security Council resolution that would raise the prospect of sanctions against Syria unless the government gives unrestricted access to deliver humanitarian aid.

Both Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin and China's U.N. ambassador were no-shows at a meeting Monday to discuss the Western and Arab-backed resolution.

The proposed resolution, obtained by the Associated Press, puts most of the blame for the humanitarian crisis on the Syrian government.

The new sectarian killings came in the village of Maan, north of the central city of Hama. Hard-line Islamic fighters overran it Sunday after mortars from the village hit rebels on a nearby road, according to Abdurrahman of the Syrian Observatory.

At least 25 of the victims were civilians, including an extended family of 11 — a man, his wife, and their sons and daughters — along with eight other women and six men, Abdurrahman told The Associated Press. Another 20 killed were village fighters defending their homes, he said. The ages of the civilians were not known. He said he obtained details on the killings from residents of nearby villages.

The villagers are predominantly Alawites, a Shiite offshoot sect to which Assad belongs and which is a pillar of support for his rule.

The Syrian state news agency called the killings a "massacre" and said 10 women were among the dead. Information minister Omran al-Zoubi said the slain included four disabled residents. A Syrian army statement put the toll at 42 dead.

The rebels who overran the village belonged to two hardline factions, Jund al-Aqsa and Ahrar al-Sham. Both uploaded videos showing their fighters in the village, though neither claimed responsibility for any killings.

In Jund al-Aqsa's video, its fighters wave a black jihadi flag over the village and are seen grinning as they loot a house. One fighter shouts against Assad and against Alawites, whom extremists see as heretics to be killed. The bloodied body of one man in fatigues, apparently a village fighter, is shown lying on the ground.

The videos corresponded with the AP's reporting of the event.

Jund al-Aqsa has sworn allegiance to the Islamic State in the Iraq and the Levant, a breakaway group from al-Qaida. Ahrar al-Sham is a conservative Muslim rebel group.

Islamic extremists — including foreign fighters and Syrian rebels who have taken up hard-line al-Qaida-style ideologies — have played an increasingly prominent role among the rebel fighters fighting forces loyal to Assad. But extremists have also turned on each other, with some Islamic factions battling the Islamic State, which they accuse of trying to control the rebellion.

On Monday, the al-Qaida linked Nusra Front announced it had pushed out Islamic State rivals from the eastern province of Deir al-Zour after four days of clashes, the Syrian Observatory said.

Meanwhile, a third batch of Syria's chemical weapons material was shipped out of the country on a Norwegian cargo vessel, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said Monday. The Hague, Netherlands-based OPCW, which is overseeing Syria's attempts to destroy its chemical weapons, said an unspecified amount of chemicals used in making weapons has also been destroyed inside Syria.

Syria has missed several deadlines on the timetable to have its chemical weapons eradicated by June 30 but insists it will meet the final deadline.

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AP correspondents Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.