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U.S. resumes aid to Syrian opposition as negotiator defends 'slow' negotiations

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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • U.S. resumes nonlethal aid to unarmed Syrian opposition groups
  • U.N. envoy: Women and children will be allowed to leave a besieged old city
  • Syria wants a list of men looking to leave Homs
  • U.N. negotiator says slow talks can be better

From Nic Robertson, Samira Said and Jethro Mullen

GENEVA, Switzerland (CNN) -- As tense talks over Syria's future proceed in Geneva, the United States has restarted deliveries of nonlethal aid to Syrian opposition groups.

The supplies -- communications equipment and other nonlethal aid -- for now are being delivered only to unarmed opposition groups, but deliveries could resume to others soon, two U.S. officials said Monday.

The aid was stopped in December after Islamist militants raided a warehouse held by the Western-backed Free Syrian Army. It is being restarted because rebels have taken measures to strengthen security and prevent supplies from being diverted to extremists, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The aid is being sent through Turkey, and delivery is being coordinated by the Free Syrian Army, according to the officials.

The news may offer faint glimmers of hope to struggling Syrians.

But the talks in Geneva are making little progress on humanitarian issues, let alone complex political questions.

Syria submitted a document of basic principles for the talks, which the opposition rejected, state-run Syrian TV said Monday. The document stated that Syrian sovereignty should be respected and demanded that other countries stop providing weapons, training and refuge for fighters, and inciting terrorism, state TV said.

There was already a communique that brought the different sides to the talks.

Opposition groups have long called on the Syrian government to halt its relentless attacks on rebel-controlled areas.

Struggling to survive

Another glimmer of hope came Sunday, when President Bashar al-Assad's government agreed to let women and children leave the besieged old city of Homs.

The U.N. envoy leading talks between Syria's warring sides said they could begin leaving the old city as soon as Monday.

But the Syrian government requested a list of names of male civilians who want to leave Homs, which appeared unlikely to sit well with opposition groups.

For the desperate people in Homs, known as the capital of the uprising, help can't come soon enough.

Abu Rami, an activist and resident, said al-Assad's regime has been preventing food and medical supplies from entering, creating dire needs that have now reached "a critical stage."

"People can't find the basic material to stay alive," he said Sunday. "People are looking for grass to eat."

Those in need include children, pregnant women and elderly people.

Homs became a symbol of the uprising as massive street protests against the authoritarian regime took place in 2011. The city later became the site of a furious assault by the Syrian government that the opposition said was aimed at destroying a nascent rebel fighting force at the expense of the civilian population.

The government has claimed its troops have sought to eliminate terrorist groups that have infiltrated Homs. It says it is trying to protect the civilian population from acts of violence and weed out arms obtained illegally by radicals.

Fadel Mohamed Ali, another activist in Homs, said the old city, surrounded by the Syrian military and secret police, has no exit. He said there was at least one bombing and gunfire rang out Sunday.

Behind the scenes, diplomats and a senior U.S. official at the talks in Geneva described the humanitarian situation in Homs as dire and said the regime has been systematically stopping aid from reaching the city.

"The regime is blocking all convoys of aid to Homs and has been doing so for months," the official said. "The U.N., with the Red Cross, has been trying to get these aid convoys through to the city of Homs; the regime is blocking it. The situation is extremely urgent. Anything the regime says to the contrary is wrong."

Negotiator: Slow talks are better

Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. envoy mediating the talks in Geneva, acknowledged they're moving slowly.

"I am often accused of being too slow, but I think that being slow is a better way of going fast. ... If you run, you may gain one hour and lose one week," he said. "So we are going slow. I hope that we will continue to be going slow. So far, I think that the process is continuing, but it's very early."

The stakes are high. More than 100,000 Syrians have been killed in the conflict and millions of people have become refugees. The fighting has also had a destabilizing effect on the wider region.

Opposition groups have pressed for the conversation to switch to the subject of political transition in Syria.

But the thorny issue of the role of al-Assad in any transitional government -- the opposition and the United States insist he can play no part -- makes it a very tough area for the two sides to address.

 

CNN's Nic Robertson reported from Geneva, and Samira Said from Atlanta. CNN's Jethro Mullen reported from Hong Kong. CNN's Alex Felton, Catherine E. Shoichet, Josh Levs, Jason Hanna, Yousuf Basil, Elise Labott, Gayle Edmonds and Saad Abedine contributed to this report.

 

The-CNN-Wire

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