Government forces continue strikes on besieged north Homs as negotiators demand prisoner release

AMMAN: Government forces bombed rebel-held areas of the northern Homs countryside for the second consecutive day on Wednesday as opposition negotiators refuse to back off their demand that the release of regime-held detainees be part of a permanent ceasefire agreement.

Mortar fire from pro-regime positions in northern Homs hit the town of al-Taybah al-Gharbiya in the province’s rebel-held al-Houla region Wednesday, Homs Media Center reported. On Tuesday, a government warplane reportedly conducted two strikes on the neighboring village of Taldo, injuring at least 25 civilians and causing material damages, the director of the local Civil Defense force, Rafi’a al-Akash, told Syria Direct on Wednesday.

The upswing in air raids comes despite a Russian-backed ceasefire in north Homs that took effect on August 1, making the area the third de-escalation zone implemented in Syria under a Russian-led plan presented at talks in Astana, Kazakhstan in May.

Conditions of the north Homs ceasefire agreement include a mutual cessation of hostilities, entry of humanitarian aid, free movement of civilians into and out of the besieged area, the deployment of Russian military monitors and the release of government-held detainees. Some aid has reached the besieged area, Syria Direct reported on August 10, but it was not immediately clear whether the other terms are being implemented.

Aftermath of an airstrike in besieged northern Homs on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Sameer al-Akash.

The last ceasefire negotiation took place between the opposition and Russian representatives on August 7 near the a-Dar al-Kabira crossing at the southern edge of the rebel-held pocket. The purpose of the meeting was to begin discussing terms for a new agreement that would supersede the current one.

Aamer al-Aamer, a negotiator present at the meeting, told Syria Direct that he is now compiling a list of detainees for release which will be presented at their next sit-down, scheduled for August 28.

Opposition negotiators say they will not compromise on the condition regarding detainees, even if it results in a collapse of the ceasefire agreement, Syria Direct reported earlier this month.

Meanwhile, government forces began bombing a handful of rebel-held towns in the area on August 10, violating the ceasefire. At least one civilian was killed, according to Syria Direct’s reporting at the time.

“Since the northern Homs countryside joined the de-escalation agreement, government shells and air attacks have not ceased targeting civilians in besieged al-Houla,” Hussain Abo Mohammad, a correspondent for the Homs Media Center, said. “Instead, they’ve intensified.”

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations.

Kristen Demilio

Kristen Gillespie Demilio has more than 10 years of experience reporting from the Middle East while based in Amman. She regularly contributed to news outlets including CBS News Radio, NPR, The Jerusalem Report and PBS and is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism as well as the Institut Français des Etudes Arabes in Damascus.