The last Syrian rebels have left the Old City of Homs. The pullout leaves opposition fighters confined to a district on the outskirts of the city, once "the capital of the revolution" against President Bashar al-Assad.
Regime troops moved into Homs to clear explosives Friday. Civilians also returned to see what remained of their homes in Hamidiyeh, a Christian district that fell under nearly daily bombardment from regime forces during a two-year siege that killed 2,200 and forced many to subsist on nothing more than herbs. News agencies reported that many returning residents found only debris and ruins.
"We have completed the evacuation of armed men from the Old City of Homs," provincial Governor Talal al-Barazi said on Friday.
The final convoy of about 300 people withdrew Friday after a daylong delay blamed on rebels in northern Syria who had blocked an aid convoy to two pro-regime towns besieged by opposition fighters in Aleppo province. The aid delivery as well as the release of hostages held by the rebels across Syria represented key parts of the exchange that starting Wednesday saw more than 1,500 people, mainly opposition fighters, leave Homs, Syria's third-largest city and once a cradle of the revolution, with a guarantee of safe passage. A previous UN-brokered agreement had helped secure the evacuation of about 1,400 civilians from the Old City in February.
'This is encouraging'
Barazi said that negotiations had also advanced for rebels to leave the Wael neighborhood, their only remaining holdout in Homs, in the coming weeks. The governor said the fighters and some of the civilians evacuated with them had been transported by bus to the opposition-held town of Dar al-Kabira, 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of Homs.
The rebels and the government had previously negotiated such deals, but Friday's withdrawal represents the first time rebels have completely given up an area they controlled after an accord. In another first, the ambassadors of Iran and Russia - two of the few international allies of Syria's regime - supervised the negotiations between the rebels and state security agencies.
"If the Homs operation ... is the implementation of a political solution through understanding, this is encouraging," UN Resident Coordinator Yaacub El Hillo told the news agency AFP on Friday, adding that the United Nations had restricted its own role in order to help build "trust" between the two sides.
The pullout comes less than a month before a controversial presidential election - described as a farce by many governments and Syria's opposition - will likely return President Bashar al-Assad to office. The deal could represent a political victory for the incumbent.
Syria's civil war, which began as a series of nonviolent protests against the regime in March 2011 has led to the deaths of more than 150,000 people and the displacement of millions.
mkg/msh (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)