Rebels leave last opposition district in Syria’s Homs
HOMS, Syria/BEIRUT - ReutersThe last buses carrying rebel fighters and their families left a besieged district of Syria’s Homs yesterday, completing a deal to bring the whole city back under government control for the first time since the start of the war.
Several hundred fighters left on Saturday and Sunday in the final phase of the evacuation of insurgents from al-Waer, long besieged by government forces and the last opposition-held neighborhood in Homs, an early center of the Syrian uprising.
In what the government calls reconciliation deals, thousands of opposition fighters and their families have left a number of areas in western Syria in recent months, bringing President Bashar al-Assad’s government back in control of the country’s main urban centers.
The opposition and the United Nations have criticized the deals as forced displacement of Assad’s enemies often after months or years of siege and bombardment.
One of the rebels leaving al-Waer yesterday said many of the fighters had come to the district from other areas of Homs, including the Old City, after those areas were retaken by government forces earlier in the conflict.
“I don’t want to stay here. I’ll go to Idlib, and want to go onto Turkey and then Europe after that,” he said, without giving his name.
Evacuees have mostly headed for insurgent-held Idlib province, or for Jarablus, a town along Syria’s northern border near Turkey.
Al-Waer has been under full siege for more than a year, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Government forces backed by Russian military police had begun to take control of key parts of the district, a Russian officer told Syrian state TV.
Homs Governor Talal Barazi told reporters that in the coming hours “al-Waer will be empty of all militants and weapons.”
He said more than 700 rebel fighters would have left by the end of the final phase, as well as at least 1,000 other people including their family members.
That brought to more than 14,000 the total number of people to leave al-Waer in several phases since the agreement began to be implemented in March, Barazi said.
Among them were some 3,700 rebels, allowed to leave with their light weapons.
State television showed rebels milling around, depositing bags and suitcases in front of buses, and holding Kalashnikov assault rifles as armed men from the government side watched the proceedings.
Some 1,150 rebel fighters have decided to stay in the district and hand over their weapons under a government amnesty, Barazi said.