- Associated Press - Sunday, June 17, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — The head of the U.N. observers mission in Syria demanded Sunday that warring parties allow the evacuation of women, children, and elderly and sick people endangered by the fighting in the besieged city of Homs and other combat zones.

Maj. Gen. Robert Mood of Norway said the observers had been trying for the past week to extricate civilians and the wounded from the central city of Homs but had failed because neither government troops nor the rebels were willing to hold their fire.

“The parties must reconsider their position and allow women, children, the elderly and the injured to leave conflict zones without any preconditions and ensure their safety,” Gen. Mood said in a statement. U.N. “attempts to extract civilians from the line of fire over the past week have been unsuccessful,” he added.

“This requires willingness on both sides to respect and protect the human life of the Syrian people,” Gen. Mood said.

U.N. observers have been trying for the past week to bring out more than 1,000 families and dozens of wounded trapped in Homs by heavily shelling of rebel-held areas. The offensive is part of a broader push by regime forces to regain rebel-held villages and towns throughout the country.

On Saturday, the United Nations said the 300 observers in Syria were suspending all missions because of concerns for their safety as fighting becomes more intense. But the monitors said they were remaining in Syria in the capital, Damascus.

A U.N. official told the Associated Press earlier Sunday that a team of observers had left Damascus for Homs, hoping to evacuate civilians. The plan was not made public for fear that it would be compromised. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The official said the plan was to arrange a very brief cease-fire of up to 90 minutes during which the civilians would be evacuated from rebel-held areas of Homs through a safe corridor. He said the mission was approved by the Syrian government.

The evacuation be been the first such operation in Homs since February, when teams of the Syrian Red Crescent Society entered the tense, rebel-held neighborhood of Baba Amr and brought out wounded and civilians.

Baba Amr was retaken by Syrian troops in early March after weeks of intensive shelling and repeated ground attacks.