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Regime presses gains as Homs rebels set for pullout

  • Residents of Sheikh Najjar village greet Syrian army soldiers loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, after the soldiers claimed to have advanced and regained control of the area, May 3, 2014. (REUTERS/George Ourfalian)

DAMASCUS: Syrian rebels in the city of Homs are expected to abandon their positions Tuesday as part of a deal struck with the regime, Iranian mediators and the United Nations, as government forces advanced Sunday in Aleppo and in a strategic town near Damascus.

The deal over the Old City of Homs, under total blockade since June 2012, will see some 2,250 people, mostly fighters, evacuate the flashpoint city in central Syria.

Rebels will head to opposition-held areas in the north of Homs province, handing over control to the army, opposition sources told AFP.

The deal is expected to go into effect Tuesday, according to anti-regime activists and Hezbollah’s Al-Manar Television.

The deal brought together – for the first time – representatives of President Bashar Assad’s security forces, the rebels and Damascus backer Iran.

Homs was dubbed the “capital of the revolution” at the start of the anti-Assad uprising in 2011, and it has seen some of the heaviest violence in Syria’s war.

According to the opposition, the deal includes the exchange of an unknown number of Iranian and Lebanese prisoners currently held by the Islamic Front, Syria’s largest rebel alliance.

Some opposition sources said the agreement covered the release of three Iranians and one Russian.

The governments of Syria, Iran and Russia have not commented on the negotiations.

“An agreement took place between representatives of the rebels and the chiefs of security, in the presence of the Iranian ambassador, for the pullout of fighters from the Old City,” said rebel negotiator Abul-Hareth al-Khalidi. He added that the talks had now moved on to details of the implementation phase.

Also under the deal, a copy of which was obtained by AFP, relief will be allowed into two Shiite, pro-regime towns in the northern province of Aleppo that are under siege by rebels.

Al-Manar said the delay in implementation was due to arrangements to provide relief to Nubl and Zahraa, the two towns in Aleppo.

The text specifies that the evacuees from Homs will be escorted by U.N. and Iranian Embassy representatives, as “guarantors” of their safety, although some opposition sources have indicated that the rebels are worried that powerful pro-Assad militias will fire on them as they try to leave.

Regime representatives maintained that an “arrangement,” rather than a deal, had been reached.

“There is no deal, there is an arrangement and reconciliations that should lead to the handing over of the city, stripped empty of weapons and of armed men,” Homs Governor Talal Barazi said. “On the ground there is nothing yet.”The main opposition National Coalition, for its part, issued a statement in praise of “the heroic actions of the revolutionaries” in Homs.

The group also called on the United Nations “to fulfill its duty and to ensure the regime honors the truce” which began Friday.

An activist from Homs told AFP: “Today, the modus operandi of the withdrawal was put in place. But there will be fear from both sides until the exit takes place.”

While Homs was calm over the weekend, fighting on more than half a dozen major fronts around the country has been fierce in recent days, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based, anti-regime group, saying 368 people were killed nationwide Saturday, 118 of them civilians.

The army made major advances Sunday on Mliha, a town strategically located southeast of Damascus near the airport road, a security official said.

“More than half of the town is under army control,” the official told AFP, on condition of anonymity.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based, anti-regime group, also reported the advance, saying that Lebanon’s Shiite movement Hezbollah was playing a “lead role” in the battle.

Like the rest of the Eastern Ghouta area, Mliha has been besieged for the past year and under fierce bombardment for several weeks.

In Aleppo, anti-regime activists reported that regime troops and their paramilitary allies made gains in the Sheikh Najjar region on the outskirts of the city. The Observatory said that government troops, backed by Hezbollah fighters, also launched a campaign to break the monthslong rebel blockade of Aleppo’s Central Prison.

Government airstrikes and barrel bombs dropped by helicopter pounded the city of Aleppo and other areas in the province, killing at least 10 people. The strikes came in the wake of reports that regime and rebels were about to conclude a second agreement to halt attacks on civilian areas.

The first agreement, reached last week, collapsed after dozens of people were killed in airstrikes and artillery shelling of rebel-held areas, and was spurred by the rebels blocking electricity supplies to regime-held neighborhoods of the city.

On the border with Jordan, a gas pipeline exploded and killed three people, the Observatory said, adding that the cause of the blast remained unclear.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 05, 2014, on page 1.
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Summary

Syrian rebels in the city of Homs are expected to abandon their positions Tuesday as part of a deal struck with the regime, Iranian mediators and the United Nations, as government forces advanced Sunday in Aleppo and in a strategic town near Damascus.

The deal over the Old City of Homs, under total blockade since June 2012, will see some 2,250 people, mostly fighters, evacuate the flashpoint city in central Syria.

Rebels will head to opposition-held areas in the north of Homs province, handing over control to the army, opposition sources told AFP.

Under the deal, a copy of which was obtained by AFP, relief will be allowed into two Shiite, pro-regime towns in the northern province of Aleppo that are under siege by rebels.

Regime representatives maintained that an "arrangement," rather than a deal, had been reached.

The Observatory said that government troops, backed by Hezbollah fighters, also launched a campaign to break the monthslong rebel blockade of Aleppo's Central Prison.


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