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The fighting came as peace talks in Geneva neared the end of a second round with no sign of progress and with the government and opposition sides as far from agreement as ever, with both sticking to their known positions.
Military action in the town of Yabroud, in western Syria near the border with Lebanon, would fit with the government's aim of securing a corridor linking Damascus with President Bashar al-Assad's heartland on the Mediterranean coast.
"We have received reports from within Syria that there have been numerous aerial attacks and shelling along with a military build-up around the town, suggesting a major assault by land may be imminent," U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said.
"We understand that there remains a large number of civilians in Yabroud, with some estimates suggesting as many as 40,000 to 50,000 people, with thousands of others fleeing over the last few days," he said
Electricity was cut off on Wednesday and field hospitals are short of medical supplies as scores of people require urgent treatment, Colville told a news briefing in Geneva.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has personally stepped in to try to salvage the faltering United Nations humanitarian mission here.
Syrian allies Iran and Russia are pressing Mr. Assad to cooperate with U.N.-mediated peace talks in Geneva, a Western diplomat said. As part of the diplomacy, the allies also want the regime to build trust by easing suffering and allowing operations such as the one in Homs.
The governor of Homs earlier this week indicated that he was under pressure from Geneva to not impede the relief effort, which has brought food to starving civilians in a rebel-held enclave of Homs that has been besieged by government forces for more than 18 months. It has also evacuated nearly 1,500 people since it began on Friday.
But the mission has been beset by deadly violence, and concern is mounting over the fate of hundreds of men detained by the regime upon their evacuation because they were between the ages of 16-54 and presumed to be combatants.
Representatives of the Assad regime and Syrian rebels met face to face in Geneva on Monday for the first time since a U.N. aid convoy came under attack in the besieged city of Homs. Via the Foreign Bureau, WSJ's global news update. Photo: AP
One man evacuated on Wednesday conceded that he was scared about what would happen to him if he was detained.
"I thought being shot in the head would be faster and more bearable than starving slowly to death," he said, explaining why he chose to come out.
February 13, 2014. Today, M/V Cape Ray made a routine port of call for rest and refueling at Rota, Spain. The M/V Cape Ray is a significant U.S. contribution to international efforts to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons program and will be used to neutralize the highest priority chemicals.
By offering Rota for a port of call before M/V Cape Ray receives a load of chemical materials and embarks on the destruction phase of her mission, Spain is making a contribution to the United Nations (UN)-sanctioned multinational effort to rid Syria of its chemical weapons materials.
When Syria has completed removal of the chemicals, M/V Cape Ray will depart Rota and proceed to the transloading port in Italy, where she will take the chemicals aboard. The United States plans to neutralize the chemicals at sea in international waters using proven hydrolysis technology. All waste from the hydrolysis process aboard M/V Cape Ray will be safely and properly stored on board M/V Cape Ray until it is disposed of at commercial facilities to be determined by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW.) No hydrolysis byproducts will be released into the sea or air. M/V Cape Ray will comply with all applicable international laws, regulations, and treaties.
On September 27, 2013, the OPCW Executive Council adopted a consensus decision on Syrian chemical weapons and the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2118. Together, these actions set out an ambitious program and commitment by the international community to dismantle and destroy Syria's chemical weapons program. The United States is committed to this multinational effort and to ensuring that the hydrolysis of Syria's chemical materials prioritizes the safety of people, protects the environment, follows OPCW verification procedures, and is within applicable standards. In addition to lending our unique capabilities through specially outfitting a U.S. vessel, the United States has provided tens of millions of dollars in assistance to support the OPCW's efforts. Many other nations have also contributed to this effort.
10 February 2014
REMOVAL AND ELIMINATION OF CHEMICAL WEAPONS MATERIAL
A third shipment of chemical weapons material took place from the Syrian Arab Republic today. The material is on board a Norwegian cargo vessel accompanied by a naval escort from the People's Republic of China, Denmark, Norway, and the Russian Federation. The United Kingdom is participating in the naval escort in international waters. Finland is providing experts onboard the Danish vessel.
The Joint Mission confirms that in-country destruction of some chemical materials has taken place alongside the removal of chemical weapons material, and welcomes progress to date. The Syrian Arab Republic is encouraged to expedite systematic, predictable and high-volume movements to complete the safe removal of chemical materials.
The Joint Mission continues to work closely with the Syrian Arab Republic and Member States to achieve timely implementation of UNSC resolution 2118 (2013) and OPCW Executive Council decisions.