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UN halts evacuations from Syrian city of Homs

Beirut, Feb 15 (): The United Nations on Friday paused the evacuation of civilians from the blocked city of Homs until the fate of men arrested from the rebel-held areas becomes clear, a senior U.N. official said.

The government screened military age males who left the area. UN refugee agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said a total of 381 male refugees from the opposition-held Old City district of Homs were still being held in a school building on Friday for questioning by Syrian security services.

Matthew Hollingworth, senior Syria U.N. official told by telephone from Damascus that many men and boys aged 15 to 55, who left Old Homs during earlier evacuations, are still being detained and questioned by Syrian authorities.

Hollingworth said around 400 Homs men of fighting age were held for questioning by Syrian security forces. There are around 220 men still detained. A spokeswoman for UN children’s agency UNICEF, Marixie Mercado said that there were 14 boys between the ages of 15 and 18 still being held.

Halting the evacuation came just a day after a cease-fire was stretched for three more days, the second such postponement since the cease-fire first went into effect last week. Hundreds more civilians are supposed to still be imprisoned in rebel-held parts of the city, mostly in the medieval quarter known as Old Homs.

The imprisonments have caused extensive concern among Syrian activists who say Assad’s security forces have vigorous and killed opposition captives. International rights groups have made similar complaints.

Hollingworth said the evacuated men have understood they would have to be present themselves to Syrian security forces. The opposition-held districts of Homs have been under blockade by the Syrian government for 600 days, with an estimated 4,000 people facing daily bombardment and decreasing supplies.

The government has said it was vital to question men in order to clear out “terrorists” – it says the revolt is worked by Gulf money and foreign jihadists.