HOMS, Syria: Syria’s government and rebels agreed to a cease-fire Friday in the city of Homs aimed at allowing hundreds of fighters holed up in its old quarters to evacuate, a move that would surrender almost total control of the city once known as the “capital of the revolution” to President Bashar Assad’s forces.
If rebel fighters do leave, the capture of Homs, Syria’s third largest city, would be a significant victory for Assad, weeks before presidential elections set for June 3.
The 48-hour cease-fire deal, reported by opposition activists and a pro-government TV, came after weeks of unprecedented pounding of rebel-held districts by regime forces. In a sign the truce came into effect, an Associated Press team in Homs Friday said it was unusually quiet, with no shots fired from either side.
Still, the deal could potentially collapse if there are last-minute disputes over the terms of evacuation and some rebels decide to hold out.
One Homs-based opposition activist said it was a bitter moment for the rebels who have been barricaded in 13 neighborhoods around Homs’ historic center.
“This isn’t what we wanted, but it’s all we could get,” Beibars Tilawi told the AP in a Skype interview. “The regime wanted to take control of the heart of the revolution.” Evacuations may start Saturday.
Residents of Homs were among the first to rise fiercely against Assad’s rule three years ago. After waves of anti-Assad protests by its residents, rebels seized control of much of the city and Homs quickly became the focus of the worst violence of the uprising.
Homs, 130 km north of Damascus with a prewar population of around 1.2 million, is particularly important for its centrality. It links the capital with Aleppo in the north – the country’s largest city and another key battleground.
Blocks of Homs have been blasted to rubble in the grueling battles as Assad’s forces fought to wrest it back. For more than a year, government troops have blockaded rebels inside a string of districts spread over some 13 km, causing widespread hunger and weakening the fighters.
Heavy airstrikes and artillery bombardment of rebel-held areas intensified in past weeks, as government troops won other victories further south near Damascus and the Lebanon border, hurting supply lines. Rebels outside Homs did not come to the aid of the fighters within and the past few months hundreds of fighters surrendered to Assad-loyal forces, activists said.
But a hardcore group remained fighting, dispatching explosive-rigged cars into government-controlled districts of Homs, killing dozens of people, mostly civilians. Most recently, a double car bombing Tuesday killed over 50 people.
Some rebels and activists in Homs have been negotiating over a truce for at least two months, but the bulk of the rebels refused to agree until the final, violent push of fighting, activists said. United Nations officials oversaw the agreement, according to Tilawi.
It wasn’t immediately clear how the rebels would leave Homs – or if all rebel districts in the city had agreed to the deal.
Tilawi said the fighters would leave in groups, beginning from Saturday. They will be taken to rebel-held provincial towns north of Homs. He estimated at least 1,000 rebels and activists had to be evacuated.
Also Friday, two car bombs struck two small pro-government villages in the central Syrian province of Hama, killing 18 people, including 11 children, state-run television said.
The head of the Syrian opposition in exile will visit the U.S. next Wednesday seeking sophisticated weapons for rebels battling to overthrow the regime, his office said Friday.