DAMASCUS: Talks on a rebel withdrawal from a handful of besieged neighborhoods in Syria's Homs have entered their final phase, officials said Saturday, as the army advanced around Damascus and Aleppo.
Talks to evacuate Homs, once dubbed "the capital of the revolution" against President Bashar al-Assad, are near completion, according to Governor Talal al-Barazi and rebel representative and negotiator Abul Harith al-Khalidi.
The negotiations continued a day after a ceasefire was put in place for the badly battered city, which has suffered some of Syria's worst and most persistent violence ever since the start of the revolt in March 2011.
A rebel pull-out from a handful of besieged, opposition-held districts in the heart of the city would mean Assad's regime has regained complete control of Homs.
"Talks to rid the city of arms and of armed men ... are ongoing and we are near the end," said Barazi.
Abul Harith said the talks are being held in tandem with negotiations to free a group of pro-regime Iranian officers held by rebels in the northern city of Aleppo.
Such a deal, which would include guarantees of safe passage for the Homs fighters, "is a way to put pressure on the regime," he said, adding that all rebel groups, including the Al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Nusra Front, had given him permission to negotiate the pullout.
"We want to stop this bloodbath," he said.
Earlier, Barazi had said Al-Nusra opposed the truce.
Homs is Syria's third city and is strategically located in the heart of the country.
Only a handful of neighbourhoods surrounding the historic and now destroyed Old City remain in rebel hands, after a series of massive army offensives starting in February 2012.
The vast majority of some 1,500 people still trapped in the Old City are fighters, but the rebel-held Waer neighbourhood is home to hundreds of thousands of civilians, many of them displaced from fallen rebel bastions.
Barazi said the deal "will be applied first in the Old City, then in Waer. The goal is to reach a peaceful solution that brings back security and government institutions."
- Regime advances -
Elsewhere in Syria, the army pressed advances around Aleppo and took control of the road leading to the airport, according to a security source, who said troops also made fresh gains northeast of the city.
Aleppo's rebel areas have been under a massive aerial offensive since mid-December that has killed hundreds of people -- mainly civilians -- and forced thousands to flee.
On Saturday, rebels launched a mortar attack against a government-held area of Aleppo, hitting a hospital and killing 12 people, according to SANA.
Meanwhile 22 civilians, mainly students, were wounded in a mortar attack that hit the faculty of economics at Aleppo University.
Mortars also hit the capital Saturday, killing three people, according to SANA.
The army backed by Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah fighters made gains east of Damascus, advancing into the rebel-held town of Mleiha after several weeks of daily bombardment, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group with contacts inside Syria.
In eastern Syria, in spite of an appeal on Friday by Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, fighting raged between jihadists loyal to Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
A Syrian government newspaper, Al-Thawra, meanwhile lashed out against UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos and demanded her replacement, days after she had said a Security Council resolution demanding aid access across Syria was "not working."
Rights groups have accused the Syrian government of failing to comply with the UN resolution.
Syria's uprising began with peaceful protests in March 2011 calling for an end to the Assad family's four-decade rule, but escalated into an armed insurgency after the regime launched a brutal crackdown on dissent.
The war has since killed more than 150,000 people and forced nearly half the population to flee their homes.