BEIRUT: Exhausted and worn out from a nearly two-year-long siege, hundreds of Syrian rebels Wednesday left their last remaining bastions in the heart of the city of Homs under a cease-fire deal with government forces.
The exit of some 1,200 fighters and civilians will mark a de facto end to the rebellion in the battered city, which was one of the first places to rise up against President Bashar Assad’s rule, earning it the nickname of “capital of the revolution.”
By the evening, around 600 fighters had boarded several batches of buses that departed from a police command center on the edge of Homs’ rebel-held areas, heading north. Many of the rebels were wounded, and it was unclear how many civilians were among them.
According to the deal, the rebels were taken a few kilometers north to the rebel-held towns of Talbiseh and Dar al-Kabira on the northern edge of Homs province.
Opposition activist Abu Yassin al-Homsi said each fighter was allowed to carry his rifle and a bag of belongings with him. One rocket-propelled grenade launcher and a machine gun were also allowed on each bus, he said.
“We are very sad for what is happening today. We ate grass and leaves until there was nothing left for us to eat,” said Homsi, as he prepared to leave with the rebels.
“We kept urging the international community to lift the siege but there was no response. We have lost more than 2,000 martyrs in nearly two years of siege.”
State TV said government forces would enter the evacuated neighborhoods once rebels leave entirely, although the rebels will retain one toe-hold in Homs. Fighters in the Waer district, just outside Homs’ Old City, have so far refused to join the evacuation. Some activists said negotiations were underway for a similar deal there. The governor of Homs, Talal Barazi, told the state SANA news agency that “work is underway for this process to cover all neighborhoods of Homs, and not just the Old City.”
The evacuation was a bitter moment for the exhausted rebels, who had pledged to fight to the end in 13 neighborhoods in and around the historic quarters of Homs where they had been holed up. Some fighters had said they would rather die than give up the city.
The rebels include fighters from the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front group and other Islamist factions. In videos of the evacuation posted online by activists, two green public buses carrying rebels drive along a dusty, battered road past shattered, bombed-out buildings.
In one video, fighters with bags of belongings, some with their faces covered, board a bus as men in black uniforms labeled “police” oversee the process. At least one U.N.-marked vehicle was parked nearby. The videos appeared genuine and matched AP’s reporting on the evacuation.
While the agreement represents a demoralizing admission of defeat by opposition forces, it can also be seen as a face-saving deal for both sides.
Weakened rebels, for whom Homs’ collapse was only a matter of time, get a safe exit, while the government saves manpower and weapons and can claim it was able to retake the last rebel bastions without spilling more blood.
In exchange for their evacuation, the opposition fighters pledged to allow aid into two pro-government villages, Nubl and Zahraa in Aleppo province, besieged by rebels for more than a year.
However, one hard-line rebel group closed a road to prevent aid from reaching the two villages, causing a brief suspension in evacuations from Homs.
Residents of Aleppo, meanwhile, staged a brief demonstration against the lifting of the blockade on Nubl and Zahraa, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime group.
The problem was resolved after opposition fighters from another faction opened an alternate route to the villages to let in aid, allowing the evacuations from Homs to resume, said Thaer Khalidiya, an activist from Homs who is now based in Turkey.
The deal between the regime and rebels, mediated by Iran’s ambassador to Syria, was reached as part of an exchange for a number of hostages being held by opposition fighters in the city of Aleppo.
The Observatory said the captives were released in stages during the day, matching the departure of fighters from Homs.
Out of 45 people released by the rebels, it said 29 were government soldiers, one was a female Iranian national, and the rest were civilians – three women and 12 minors – from the coastal province of Latakia, who were seized during a rebel offensive in August.
Pro-regime Facebook pages quickly posted photographs of the detainees after their release, and mocked the rebels for abandoning Homs after their earlier vows to fight to the end.