Syrian rebels have begun to evacuate their besieged positions in the Old City of Homs, as part of a deal which will leave the "Capital of the Revolution" in the hands of government forces, according to local activists.
Under the terms of a United Nations-brokered ceasefire, the first of more than a thousand fighters and civilians boarded buses this morning, which will take them to opposition-held areas north of the city.
Video posted online by activists appeared to show a line of armed fighters getting on to green buses overseen by local police and UN personnel. All of the rebels, along with some accompanying civilians, should be evacuated by the end of the day, a local activist told AP, adding that each gunman would be allowed to take a bag of belongings and a rifle with him. A bonus allowance of one rocket-propelled grenade and a machine gun would also be allowed per bus, the man known as Abu Yassin al-Homsi noted.
Syrian rebels evacuated the old city of Homs on May 7, abandoning their last stronghold in the city following a UN-brokered deal. Video via YouTube/khdr7000
In turn, rebels pledged to release captives in Aleppo and Latakia provinces, and allow supplies through to two besieged pro-government towns in northern Syria, AP said. The state-run SANA agency reported that 15 people who had been held by rebel forces in Aleppo were released today, although it is not clear if this is related to the Homs agreement.
The rebel evacuation had looked likely since a ceasefire was declared on May 2. However, losing Homs to Assad's forces will be a bitter symbolic blow for opposition groups. Some of the earliest and largest anti-government protests of the Syrian uprising took place in the city in 2011, and it was the first to fall to rebel fighters when they took up arms to counter the brutal repression of dissent by Assad's forces.
There will not be much of the city left to reconcile.
Nevertheless, an orderly withdrawal is something of a face-saving compromise, allowing rebel forces to leave their positions with some of their weapons and escape to fight another day. Government troops had looked certain to take Homs eventually after a concerted offensive completely encircled the poorly-equipped and supplied opposition fighters, left them in an increasingly desperate position.
Buses took rebels out of the devastated old city to a position in a rebel-held area north of Homs. Video via YouTube.
Assad, meanwhile, will be reveling in a bloodless propaganda victory less than a month before the June 3 presidential election — derided by opponents as a sham — which he will undoubtedly win.
One rebel stronghold remains in Homs, in the al-Waer district on the outskirts of the city. Homs Governor Talal al-Barazi told SANA this morning, however, that all neighborhoods of the city would be "cleared of arms and gunmen," implying that al-Waer may be also part of an evacuation deal. Barazi added that "the process of settlement and reconciliation" would begin as soon as rebels had left.
There will not be much of the city left to reconcile. Bitter urban warfare has devastated Homs since rebel fighters first took possession of parts of the town. Government troops have blockaded their opponents and kept up a steady bombardment of artillery and air strikes.
In response, desperate rebels stepped up a car bombing campaign in government-held areas of the city, killing dozens, mostly civilians.
Hundreds of fighters and civilians fled Homs in November during a separate UN-brokered ceasefire. Those who left then reported that the situation was becoming increasingly desperate with dwindling food supplies forcing the besieged city's remaining residents to eat grass, shrubs, rats, and stray cats to survive.
This video, uploaded on May 7, shows a busload of rebels leaving Homs under UN escort. Video via Unified Media Office of Homs.
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