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Last syria rebels quit Homs Old City, civilians return to ruins

Rebel fighters queue as they wait to be evacuated from the Old City of Homs May 8, 2014. REUTERS/Ghassan Najjar

HOMS, syria: The last syrian rebels left Homs' Old City Friday under an evacuation deal that hands the government a symbolic victory, as civilians began trickling back in to find neighbourhoods in rubble.

The pullout leaves the rebels confined to a single district on the outskirts of the central city, once "the capital of the revolution" against President Bashar al-Assad.

As troops moved in to clear out explosives, hundreds of civilians began returning to see what remained of their homes in Hamidiyeh, a Christian district in the Old Town, which has been under nearly daily bombardment during a two-year siege.

Many were shocked, with tears in their eyes, as they climbed over debris to inspect the ruins, said an AFP journalist at the scene.

"My whole house is destroyed. I went to my in-laws' home, and that's destroyed too. Nothing, except a few objects, remains," said Wafa.

The final convoy of rebels withdrew after a day-long delay blamed on fighters in northern syria blocking an aid convoy destined for two pro-regime towns besieged by opposition fighters in Aleppo province.

The aid delivery had been pledged as part of an exchange that eventually saw some 2,000 people, mainly rebels, leave the Old City with a guarantee of safe passage.

Homs Governor Talal al-Barazi said "we have completed the evacuation of armed men from the Old City of Homs," referring to the withdrawal, which began Wednesday.

Most left Wednesday and Thursday, but buses carrying the last 250 rebels were delayed till Friday because fighters not involved in the deal blocked the pledged flow of food supplies into the Shiite towns of Nubol and Zahraa, said the syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

As the aid convoys entered Zahraa Friday, the last rebels in Homs were finally allowed to leave.

Barazi said negotiations were also well advanced for rebels to leave the Wael neighbourhood, 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 bussed out to the opposition-held town of Dar al-Kabira, 20 kilometres (13 miles) north of Homs.

State news agency SANA quoted Barazi as saying government troops had entered the Old City on Friday and began clearing it of explosives planted by the rebels.

Jaqueline Fawwaz, aged 30, was also returning to her old neighbourhood of Hamidiyeh.

"I had seen on Facebook that my home had been destroyed, but I couldn't believe it. I wanted to see it with my own eyes," she said.

A 45-year-old who returned with her husband and did not identify herself said: "I came to check on my house, but I couldn't find it. I didn't find a roof, I didn't find walls. I only found this coffee cup, which I will take with me as a souvenir."

The neighbourhood was devastated. Shop windows were cracked, and the few walls remaining upright were riddled with bullets.

This is not the first deal between the government and the rebels, but is the first time rebel fighters have withdrawn from an area they controlled after an accord.

It is also the first time syria's rebels and security agencies sign a deal after negotiations, supervised by the ambassador of key Damascus ally Iran.

UN Resident Coordinator Yaacub El Hillo, who was present in Homs, welcomed the deal.

"If the Homs operation... is the implementation of a political solution through understanding, this is encouraging," he told AFP, adding that the UN's role had been restricted to help build "trust" between the two sides.

The government allowed the rebels to pull out with their personal weapons in return for the release of 40 Alawite women and children, an Iranian woman and 30 soldiers held hostage by rebels elsewhere in syria.

The army has imposed many sieges in the three-year-old conflict but that of the Old City of Homs has been by the far longest.

Some 2,200 people were killed as near daily bombardment reduced the area to ruins, and people were reduced to surviving on little more than herbs.

A military source in Damascus told AFP that "the big event of today is that Homs is now a city empty of armed men and this is a victory for the people and the army."

The pullout comes less than a month before a controversial presidential election, described as a farce by Western governments and the opposition, that is expected to return Assad to office.

 

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