Syria rebels in final retreat from heart of Homs

The last rebels were pulling out from the centre of the battleground city of Homs on Thursday, handing a symbolic victory to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ahead of a controversial election.

Homs: The last rebels were pulling out from the centre of the battleground city of Homs on Thursday, handing a symbolic victory to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ahead of a controversial election.

Rebels hit back in the historic heart of Aleppo, blowing up a luxury hotel turned army position after tunnelling under the front line which divides the main city of northern Syria.

At least 14 soldiers and pro-government militiamen were killed in the explosion and its aftermath, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Three quarters of rebel fighters have already left the Old City of Homs under the unprecedented negotiated evacuation that began Wednesday, according to figures given to AFP by provincial governor Talal Barazi

The rest were set to withdraw on Thursday afternoon, out of a total of 1,700 people being evacuated, mostly fighters.

The pullout following an army siege of nearly two years leaves the rebels confined to a single district on the outskirts of a city that what was once a bastion of the uprising.

Barazi said negotiations were well advanced for the rebels to leave that neighbourhood too in the coming weeks.

He said the fighters and some civilians evacuated with them were being bussed out to the opposition-held town of Dar al-Kabira, 20 kilometres (13 miles) north of Homs.

Barazi was able to visit his former office in the Old City on Thursday for the first time in three years. 

Government troops played football on the square housing Homs`s landmark clock tower, once the scene of the city`s massive anti-government protests.

A soldier climbed onto the rooftop of a house and told AFP: "This is the first time I climb up here without fearing snipers."

"Come on, shoot me!" he called out to another soldier, who took a photograph of him.

It is not the first deal between the government and the rebels -- a number of ceasefires have been agreed on the outskirts of Damascus.

But it is the first time that rebel fighters have withdrawn from an area they controlled under an accord with the government.

The government allowed the remaining rebels in Homs 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, a rebel spokesman said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory monitoring group confirmed that all the hostages had been released by Thursday afternoon.

The deal also involves the distribution of aid into Nubol and Zahraa, two Shiite, pro-regime towns in Aleppo province that are under siege by the rebels.

The negotiations were overseen by the ambassador of Syria`s close ally Iran.Abu Wissam, one of the last rebel fighters awaiting evacuation from the city centre, bemoaned the outside interests now at play in a conflict that had begun as an Arab Spring-inspired protest movement.

"I took part in the protests from very early on. During that time, there were no international agendas controlling the protests. Everyone acted freely and spontaneously," he told AFP via the Internet.

"But now, everyone is moved like pawns in a chess game. The evacuation is a big game that has been in the planning" for many months by regional and international powers, he said.

There have been many sieges imposed by both sides 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.

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

On a visit to Washington for talks with President Barack Obama, opposition chief Ahmad Jarba said the vote will give Assad "a licence ... to kill his own people for many years to come."
In Aleppo, the rebel attack claimed by the massive Islamic Front alliance completely destroyed the Carlton Citadel Hotel, just across the road from the city`s UNESCO-listed Citadel, which the army had been using as a frontline position.
A rebel offensive in July 2012 when they seized large swathes of Aleppo left the Citadel and nearby hotels which once thronged with foreign tourists on the front line of the deadly conflict.

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