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Can They Flee? Hundreds of Syrians Face Uncertain Fate

Syrian civilians walk as they are evacuated during a humanitarian operation in the besieged Syrian city of Homs on Feb. 10, 2014. AFP - Getty Images

The embattled Syrian city of Homs has had its share of terrible days and heartbreaking scenes, but what has unfolded over the last few days before the eyes of disbelieving U.N. officials and aid workers ranks among this city’s memorable images.

Officials were ready and waiting for about 100, perhaps 200, mostly women and children to emerge from the back streets of the Old City of Homs that’s been under siege for most of the last two years.

What greeted them has been the sight of about 1,150 weary, hungry, bedraggled men, women and children who have been fleeing Homs since Friday.

They ran, stumbled and screamed towards their saviors in blue helmets and white, armored vehicles. They lost children in the scramble, dropped luggage, but they were crossing the no man’s land to freedom.

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A fragile ceasefire held, barely. There was shooting and, in the distance, shelling. Eleven people were killed in the Old City, but those who wanted to escape, made it.

The U.N.-brokered "humanitarian pause" between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. has also allowed aid to get into the old quarter of Homs, which has been surrounded by President Bashar al-Assad's forces for almost two years. The cease has been extended until Wednesday.

More than 300 of those who escaped, however, were men of military age. There had, initially, been no agreement to allow anyone over 15 years old and under 55 out of Homs.

But Homs Governor Talak ak-Barazai proposed that if men of fighting age emerged and, after questioning, were clearly not rebels with blood on their hands, then they would be free to go, after signing a declaration that they would not fight in future.

The approximately 300 men were taken off to an abandoned school where, after being questioned by Syrian military officials, 111 were reprtedly released. That leaves about 200 still in Syrian custody.

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Barazai’s men had to hold back many furious regime soldiers and civilians who wanted to photograph, film, and identify the freed men; men they considered enemies. They hurled insults at them

The governor yelled back at them that he’d have them arrested by their superiors if they kept trying to get at the bewildered refugees.

It has been, by any standard, a remarkable few days.

So, what's next?

There are three big questions.

First, what's going to happen to these men?

Many are still being questioned by the Syrian military – without any supervision by a neutral third party, the United Nations said Tuesday.

How do they prove they had no part in the violence against the regime? About a third of them have been released. But are they, are any of them, really safe? How many might just disappear?

Almost two decades ago, thousands of civilians put themselves in the hands of the U.N., who had declared their war zone “safe.” The world now remembers Srebrenica for the biggest massacre since World War II, not for the naïve reassurances of the U.N.

In Homs Tuesday, where the men are being interrogated, there are no representatives of the International Red Cross or Red Crescent or any other human rights groups.

Second, what happens when the agreed ceasefire in Homs runs out on Wednesday night? Does the Syrian army regard anyone who is left a “legitimate target" and begin a massive bombardment?

Third, will the relief in Homs be extended to other cities? "Forget it," says Russia. According to Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the West's proposal to do that is unrealistic.

So, as the Syria peace talks in Geneva resume, with no progress, but plenty of insults, there's deadlock there: qualified progress in Homs, but many questions about the fate of those who believe they have escaped the worst of the war.