Rebels leave Homs to al-Assad forces with deal
Buses evacuate Syrian civilians as hundreds of civilians and rebel forces began leaving the last opposition-held district of Waer, in the central city of Homs, under a deal with the Syrian regime. AFP PhotoHundreds of Syrian rebels and civilians began evacuating the last opposition-held district in the central city of Homs on Dec. 9 under a local cease-fire deal reached with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The deal, a rare agreement between the regime and rebel forces, agreed that the rebel forces would in December leave the city once dubbed the “capital” of Syria’s revolution fully under government control.
Some 2,000 rebels and their families will abandon the Waer district in Homs to travel to other opposition-held areas in the country’s north, after years of siege and heavy shelling, Agence France-Presse reported.
An AFP journalist in Homs saw women and children quietly boarding white buses as the evacuation began early on Dec. 9. Many appeared haggard but some smiled, waved and gave the thumbs-up from inside the buses.
Homs Gov. Talal Barazzi told the Associated Press that 272 gunmen and 447 civilians left the district of Waer on Dec. 9, heading to opposition-held areas further north in the country.
The United Nations presided over the implementation of the deal, which allowed those leaving Waer safe passage to the north.
More than 100 opposition fighters, some carrying light weapons, boarded five green buses further away.
Barazi said more people would be evacuated by the end of the week.
The evacuation comes as a broad range of Syrian opposition groups, including armed factions, hold unprecedented talks in the Saudi capital on forming a united front for peace talks with al-Assad.
The talks follow a major diplomatic push to resolve Syria’s nearly five-year civil war, and intensified foreign military action including Russia’s first strikes from a submarine on Dec. 8.
Washington is hoping to host another round of international talks in New York on Dec. 18.
Meanwhile, a two-day meeting that began Dec. 9 in Riyadh marks the first time a broad range of Syrian political and armed opposition factions have come together.
Some 100 delegates aim to form a unified bloc for talks with al-Assad, though analysts say deep divisions will be difficult to overcome.
Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the buses were to head to the northwestern province of Idlib, held by the Army of Conquest rebel alliance which includes al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front.
Under the deal, Waer’s rebel forces, who range from secular fighters to jihadists including al-Nusra militants, are to completely leave the district by the end of January.
Once the evacuation is complete, police, but not troops, will re-enter the district, where some 75,000 people currently live, down from 300,000 before the conflict began.
Homs saw some of the largest protests of the early uprising against al-Assad in 2011, and later some of the fiercest fighting after opposition forces took up weapons in response to a government crackdown.
Regaining total control of the city is an important symbolic victory for the regime, which has lost large swathes of the surrounding province to rebels and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The U.N. has been pushing for such localized cease-fires as broader efforts have failed to end Syria’s war, despite the deaths of more than 250,000 people, and millions being forced from their homes.