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BEIRUT — Six hundred people left the besieged ruins of rebel-held central Homs on Sunday, escaping more than a year of hunger and deprivation caused by one of the most protracted blockades of Syria's devastating conflict. The evacuees, mainly women, children and old men, were brought out by the United Nations and Syrian Red Crescent on the third day of an operation during which the aid convoys came under fire and were briefly trapped themselves in the city.
Video footage from inside Homs showed scores of residents, carrying a few bags of possessions, rushing across an open expanse of no-man's land towards 10 white vehicles with U.N. markings. Gunshots could be heard as they raced to the cars.
"The last vehicle has arrived and the total is 611 people," Homs governor Talal Barazi told regional Arab broadcaster Al Mayadeen at a meeting point for evacuees outside the city.
The Red Crescent confirmed that around 600 people were evacuated and said 60 food parcels and more than a ton of flour were delivered to the Old City. Barazi and Red Crescent officials said they were working to extend the operation beyond Sunday, the final day of a fragile and frequently violated three-day ceasefire in the city. Some of those who came out were men of fighting age who were not originally eligible to leave, Barazi said, but they had agreed to hand themselves over to police and judicial authorities and could win their freedom through amnesty. Authorities suspect all men of fighting age to be part of rebel forces fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. Assad's authorities and rebel fighters have traded accusations of responsibility for attacks on Saturday which stranded the joint United Nations and Red Crescent team in central Old Homs for several hours after dark on Saturday.
The convoy was targeted as the relief workers were handing over food and medical supplies in the district where the United Nations says 2,500 people had been stranded by an ever-tightening military siege since the mid-2012.