Thaer Al Khalidiya / Reuters
A child clears damage and debris in the besieged area of Homs Jan. 26, 2014.
GENEVA — The Syrian government offered to let women and children leave the besieged city of Homs on Sunday as negotiators from the warring sides discussed humanitarian gestures on a second day of face-to-face talks in Geneva.
Government and opposition delegates also spoke of releasing prisoners and enabling access for aid convoys during what the U.N. mediator acknowledged was a slow process but one which he hoped would lead to broaching the central issue that divides them after three years of civil war - namely the future of Syria's political structures and of President Bashar al-Assad.
Homs, occupying a strategic location at the center of Syria's main road network, has been a key battleground. Assad's forces retook many of the surrounding towns and villages last year, leaving rebels under siege in the center of Homs itself, along with thousands of civilians.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told a news conference after Sunday's meetings that the government would let women and children leave the city center if rebels gave them safe passage. U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said he understood that they would be free to quit Homs immediately.
Mekdad said: "If the armed terrorists in Homs allow women and children to leave the old city of Homs, we will allow them every access. Not only that, we will provide them with shelter, medicines and all that is needed ... We are ready to allow any humanitarian aid to enter into the city through the agreements and arrangements made with the U.N."
In the city itself, however, opposition activists said rebels were demanding a complete lifting of the blockade. Some criticized negotiations in Geneva on a limited ceasefire to allow people to leave and let aid into the city. One video posted online showed demonstrators carrying Islamist flags and denouncing the Geneva talks as "treachery".
Brahimi, who presided on Saturday over the first direct meeting between the two delegations, met both together again on Sunday morning, before holding discussions with each side separately in the afternoon to go over their positions.
He aimed to hold another joint session on Monday, when he hoped to begin discussion of a U.N. plan for a transitional government.
Acknowledging the slow start to proceedings which began with a formal international conference on Wednesday, Brahimi said: "This is a political negotiation ... Our negotiation is not the main place where humanitarian issues are discussed.
"But I think we all felt ... that you cannot start a negotiation about Syria without having some discussion about the very, very bad humanitarian situation that exists."