BEIRUT: The evacuation of rebel-held parts of Syria’s Homs began under an unprecedented deal which hands back control to the government weeks before the presidential election.
After nearly two years of government siege, weary civilians and rebel forces made their way out of the shelled-out ruins of the Old City and surrounding areas on buses taking them to opposition-held territory to the north.
The deal involved the release of dozens of civilians and fighters held by rebels in the northern province of Aleppo and in Latakia province, on the Mediterranean coast, including women and children, sources said. The operation effectively turns over the city once dubbed the “capital of the revolution” to government control ahead of a controversial June 3 election expected to return President Bashar Al Assad to office.
The evacuation began at around 10am, with three buses carrying civilians and fighters, some of them wounded, departing from the devastated Old City. Videos posted online by opposition activists showed a group of fighters, some with their faces covered, walking towards green buses.
They carried backpacks and light weapons as they boarded the buses, which were accompanied by a white United Nations vehicle, under the gaze of regime police.
By sunset around 600 of the approximately 1,200 people believed to be in the Old City had left, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.
Governor Talal Al Barazi and activists in Homs province said the operation would continue today. State television quoted Assad as saying: “The state supports processes of national reconciliation in all regions because it wants to stop the bloodbath.”
Rebels and activists struck a more defiant tone. “So long as we are alive, we will continue to fight,” activist Abu Bilal said as he prepared to leave the Old City.
The evacuees were taken to the rebel-held town of Dar Al Kebira, 20km north of Homs.
Wael, an activist in the nearby village of Termaaleh, said he had received some of the evacuees.
“I asked one of my friends, who is now resting in my house, and he said to me that he felt hungry, and in pain and tearful over leaving Homs,” he said. “He said he felt his soul being pulled out of his body as he left.” Activists distributed photographs showing fighters weeping, and a man kneeling down and kissing the ground before departing.AFP