Two buses carrying the first of many hundreds of fighters left the
besieged city centre in an evacuation agreed between insurgents and
forces loyal to Assad.
The deal also includes the release of captives held by rebels in
Aleppo and Latakia provinces, and the easing of a rebel siege of two
Shi'ite towns in northern Syria.
The overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim fighters had held out in the Old
City of Homs and neighboring districts despite being undersupplied,
outgunned and subjected to more than a year of siege and bombardment
by Assad's forces.
Video footage showed a group of men climbing aboard a green bus,
watched by around a dozen men in khaki uniform and black flak
jackets marked "police". In front of the bus was a white car with
the markings of the United Nations, which helped oversee the
Activists said a total of 1,900 people, mainly rebel fighters, were
being evacuated, starting with 600 wounded fighters and civilian
relatives. But most of the people boarding the bus in central Homs
appeared to be fit men of fighting age.
Later video showed them arriving in a rebel-held area north of the
city. Unlike an evacuation of civilians from Homs in February,
activists said they were not detained for checks by security forces
and were allowed to keep their light weapons.
The evacuation comes after months of gains by the army, backed by
its Lebanese militant ally Hezbollah, along a strategic corridor of
territory linking the capital Damascus with Homs and Assad's Alawite
heartland on the Mediterranean.
The final rebel withdrawal from the centre of the city, known as the
"capital of the revolution" when protests first erupted against
Assad in 2011, would consolidate his military control ahead of a
June 3 presidential election.
Assad is widely expected to be the runaway victor in the vote which
his opponents have dismissed as a charade.
They say no credible election can be held in a country fractured by
ongoing civil war, with swathes of territory outside government
control, 6 million people displaced and another 2.5 million refugees
Under the deal which allowed the evacuation from Homs, the
overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim rebels also agreed to ease their siege
of two northern Shi'ite towns, Nubl and al-Zahraa.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels opened the roads
to allow aid into the two towns on Wednesday morning at the same
time as the first buses collected the departing rebel fighters from
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The fighters are expected to leave Homs in up to nine convoys,
carefully synchronized with the aid delivery and the release of
captives held by the rebels near Nubl and Zahraa, and the town of
Kassab in Latakia province.
One activist said a Russian national and several Iranians were
included among those being released by the rebels. There was no
independent confirmation, but Moscow and Tehran have both supported
Assad against in the three-year civil war.
More than 150,000 people have died in Syria's civil war. Millions
more have fled their homes and the government has lost control of
swathes of territory across the north and east. Fighting regularly
kills more than 200 people a day.
Provincial governor Talal Barazi said Wednesday's operation would
ultimately clear the whole of Homs city of gunmen and weapons,
suggesting reels would also be evacuated from the suburb of Al-Waer
on the city's northwestern outskirts.
Rebels in Al-Waer and the central districts around the Old City have
held out against Assad's forces after the army drove them out of the
ruins of Baba Amr in March 2012 during a ground offensive which
followed weeks of shelling.
Since then the army gradually tightened its grip around the rebel
areas, blocking weapons, medical supplies and food. It allowed
hundreds of civilians to leave in February after lengthy U.N.
(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny; Editing by Andrew Heavens)
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