Syrian rebels, families begin leaving
Homs district in deal with government
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[March 18, 2017]
By Ellen Francis
HOMS/BEIRUT (Reuters) - Rebels and their
families began leaving their last bastion in the Syrian city of Homs on
Saturday, state media and a Reuters witness said, under a Russian-backed
deal with the government expected to be among the largest evacuations of
The first few buses drove out of al-Waer district in Homs, which was an
early center of the popular uprising against Syrian President Bashar
Between 10,000 and 15,000 rebels and civilians would evacuate in batches
over the coming weeks under the deal, according to opposition activists
in al-Waer and a war monitor.
The agreement underlines Assad's upper hand in the war, as more rebel
fighters opt to leave areas they have defended for years in deals that
amount to negotiated withdrawals to other parts of the country.
The Syrian government has described such deals as a "workable model"
that brings the country closer to peace after six years of conflict. But
the opposition decries them as a tactic of forcibly displacing people
who oppose Assad after years of bombardment and siege.
Homs governor Talal Barazi told Reuters he expected around 1,500 people,
including at least 400 fighters, to depart on Saturday for rebel-held
areas northeast of Aleppo city.
Along with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), Russian and Syrian
forces were overseeing the evacuation, which would take about six weeks,
"The preparations and the reality on the ground indicate that things
will go well," Barazi said.
"We are optimistic that the full exit of armed (fighters) from this
district will pave the way for other reconciliations and settlements,"
The government has increasingly tried to press besieged rebel areas to
surrender and accept what it calls reconciliation agreements that
involve fighters departing for northern Syria.
In an interview with Chinese TV station Phoenix last week, Assad said
deals brokered locally with rebels were "the real political solutions".
He added that he had not expected anything from Geneva, where U.N.-led
peace talks ended this month with no breakthrough.
Broadcasting live from the al-Waer departure area, Syrian state
television spoke to a Russian soldier, who said via an interpreter that
security would soon return to the district.
"This agreement was reached only under the patronage of the Russian side
... and it will be implemented with Russian guarantees," he said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor,
said the buses would go to the Jarablus area in the north, held by
Once completed, it would mark the biggest evacuation during the war out
of one Syrian district, which is home to about 40,000 civilians and more
than 2,500 fighters, the monitoring group said.
[to top of second column]
A rebel fighter walks with his weapon past a Syrian security
personnel towards a bus to evacuate the besieged Waer district in
the central Syrian city of Homs, after an agreement reached between
rebels and Syria's army, Syria March 18, 2017. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki
Dozens of buses stood at a crossing waiting to leave al-Waer,
accompanied by SARC ambulances, a Reuters witness said.
Police officers searched people before the buses drove out, the Homs
police chief told Syrian state television, which said 11 buses had
left so far.
In the coming weeks, evacuees could be shuttled to other rebel-held
areas in northern Syria, including the insurgent stronghold of Idlib
province, state TV said.
Under the agreement, fighters could stay in al-Waer if they settle
their affairs with the government, it said.
The deal follows others that were never fully implemented between
the government and rebel groups in al-Waer, which has been pounded
by air strikes in recent weeks.
A few hundred rebels from the district have previously been allowed
safe passage to Idlib in the northwest.
Rebels and civilians who fear Assad's rule have poured into Idlib at
an accelerating rate over the last year, bussed out of other parts
of western Syria that the government and allied forces recaptured
Rebel groups have been on the back foot in Syria, following Russia's
intervention into the war on Assad's side, bringing its air power to
bear in support of his army and its Iranian and Shi'ite militia
The wide array of mostly Sunni rebel factions includes some
jihadists as well as some groups supported by the United States,
Turkey and Gulf monarchies.
(Reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut; Additional reporting by
Marwan Makdisi in Homs; Editing by Dale Hudson)
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