HOMS, Syria (Reuters) - Syria evacuated 83 civilians on Friday who had lived under government siege in the devastated city of Homs for a year and a half, the first concrete result of talks launched two weeks ago to try to end the country's civil war.
Buses ferried dozens of weary-looking evacuees, accompanied by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, to a meeting point outside Homs where aid workers, soldiers and police were gathered. The World Food Programme said many appeared malnourished.
"They were living on leaves and grass and olives and whatever they could find," WFP spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said.
The long awaited move was meant to have been a relatively straightforward opening step in the peace talks, which resume on Monday in Geneva with little prospect of resolving core grievances of a conflict which has killed 130,000 people.
It marked the start of a planned three-day humanitarian ceasefire, but even as it took place, activists said they feared for the fate of both evacuees and those left behind.
Under the Homs deal, women, children and old men were allowed to leave the Old City, which has been cut off by President Bashar al-Assad's forces, while humanitarian supplies will be allowed in to those who remain.
"The United Nations can confirm that 83 people were evacuated from Old Homs City today," said U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq. "The people - women, children and the elderly - were then delivered to places of their choice, escorted by United Nations and Syrian Arab Red Crescent staff."
It was the first time the Red Crescent had gained access to the centre of Homs since the siege began, the aid agency said.
The WFP said it had trucks ready to take a month's supply of food on Saturday to an estimated 2,500 people trapped in the rebel-held heart of the city.
"There are signs of malnutrition, for some of them it is very obvious," Byrs said. "Some said they have not eaten bread for five months.
Russia said a three-day ceasefire had been agreed in the city, which was one of the first areas to erupt in protest against Assad nearly three years ago and where street after street has been destroyed in heavy fighting between Assad's forces and rebels seeking his overthrow.
Syrian authorities had announced that evacuees would be given medical treatment and shelter, and that residents of Old Homs who prefer to remain will be sent humanitarian aid.
Moscow, which has supported and armed Assad throughout the civil war, hailed the Homs deal as a "landmark agreement",.
Western officials gave a sceptical response, saying Syria had an unconditional obligation to civilians trapped by conflict and arguing the issue should not have required weeks of negotiation to allow aid to enter.
"The regime should let the humanitarian convoy in. Then the population should decide to stay or leave," said Jon Wilks, Britain's special representative for Syria.
Rebels have rejected similar offers to evacuate women and children in the past because of concerns about what might happen to any men, including fighters, who are left behind. Dozens of men were detained and disappeared after a similar deal made last year in Mouadamiya, west of Damascus.
AILING CIVILIANS REMAIN
There were differing reports about where the evacuees were headed. An activist in the Old City of Homs said they were being taken to Al-Waar - a neighbourhood on the north-western edge of Homs where many of the city's Sunni population have already fled.
"We are very concerned that some of the people who will arrive in Waar today will be arrested by the regime later," Hassan Abuzain said by Skype.
"Last night the regime shelled the Old City and this morning it shelled Waar, the very place we are sending these people to for safety."
He said one man who approached the first bus for evacuation had been shot and wounded by a sniper, blaming Assad's forces for the shooting. There was no comment from officials, who have frequently blamed rebels for firing on humanitarian convoys.
Television footage of one bus which brought the evacuees out appeared to show several bullet holes in the back of the vehicle, though it was not clear when the damage occurred.
U.N. aid chief Valerie Amos welcomed Friday's operation as "a breakthrough and a small but important step towards with compliance with international humanitarian law," but "she said she understood that many civilians, sick and wounded, remain in the Old City of Homs," Haq said.
Australia, Luxembourg and Jordan presented to the five permanent U.N. Security Council members a draft resolution demanding full access for humanitarian aid workers across Syria. It was quickly dismissed by Russia as a "non-starter."
Homs governor Talal al-Barazi said earlier that the first group of evacuees from Homs would include children under 15, men over 55, and women. He said reception centres had been set up to receive and treat people leaving the old city, although those evacuated were free to go wherever they liked.
"We hope this first step will succeed and will continue tomorrow and after tomorrow and so on to ensure safe exit to all civilians who want to leave the old city."
Barazi said some Christian residents were also trying to leave the city centre but officials had not yet managed to secure them safe passage from their homes in the Hamadiya and Bustan al-Diwan districts of the city.
"God willing, we'll be able to provide better conditions for those who are in the old city to safely exit."
The deal took much longer than diplomats expected, boding ill for the future of the peace talks, which the opposition says must focus on political transition which world powers called for after a June 2012, meeting in Geneva.
The government says the priority is to end terrorism - a label it gives to all armed opposition - and says political transition, which it rejects, is only part of the agenda.
State news agency SANA cited Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad on Friday confirming the government would attend the second round of talks and demand a discussion "article by article" of the 2012 Geneva Communique.
"Restoring peace and stability throughout the Syrian Arab Republic requires putting an end to terrorism and violence, as is said in the Geneva communique," Mekdad said.
Syria's conflict began with peaceful protests against four decades of Assad family rule and degenerated into an armed insurgency after a fierce security crackdown.
Now the major Arab state is in a full-scale civil war that has killed more than 130,000 people and forced over 6 million - nearly a third of the population - to flee their homes.
(Additional reporting by Alexander Dziadosz and Erika Solomon in Beirut, Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles in Geneva, Steve Gutterman in Moscow and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Giles Elgood and Philippa Fletcher)