Syria troops enter Homs as last rebels pull out

Syrian troops Friday entered the Old City of Homs on Friday and began clearing the ex-rebel bastion of mines as the opposition fighters prepared to pull out.

AFP| Last Updated: May 09, 2014, 18:34 PM IST

Homs: Syrian troops Friday entered the Old City of Homs on Friday and began clearing the ex-rebel bastion of mines as the opposition fighters prepared to pull out.

The withdrawal after a two-year total army blockade and near-daily bombardment hands a symbolic victory to President Bashar al-Assad ahead of a controversial June 3 election he is expected to win.

The last convoy of rebels prepared to leave after a day-long delay blamed on fighters in northern Syria blocking an aid convoy destined for two pro-regime towns besieged by rebels in Aleppo province.

The aid delivery had been pledged in exchange for the safe passage of more than 2,000 people, mainly rebels, out of the Old City of Homs which is now under army control.

Homs Governor Talal al-Barazi said at least 1,630 people, mostly rebels, have left since Wednesday under the landmark deal which also saw opposition fighters release dozens of women, children and soldiers taken hostage months earlier.

But seven buses carrying the last 250 rebels were stopped because Islamist fighters refused to allow food supplies into the Shiite towns of Nubol and Zahraa, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Barazi told AFP three key rebel negotiators were among those still trapped.

"Over the next few hours, we`ll resolve logistical problems and complete the operation so they can get to their destination," he said.

"They slept in the buses or beside them, and we have taken them food, drinks and cigarettes," he added.

Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said Islamists were limiting entry of supplies to Zahraa and Nubol to two trucks, instead of 12 as agreed by the regime and rebels.

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 bussed out to the opposition-held town of Dar al-Kabira, 20 kilometres (13 miles) north of Homs.

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

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 after an accord.

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

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 Observatory watchdog said all the hostages had been released by Thursday afternoon.

Abu Wissam, a rebel fighter being evacuated from the city centre, bemoaned the outside interests now at play in a conflict that began as an Arab Spring-inspired protest movement.

"Now, everyone is moved like pawns in a chess game" between regional and international powers, he told AFP.

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.

Insecurity in war-torn Syria is hampering the final stages of work to dismantle its chemical weapons arsenal, the UN official overseeing the task told reporters on Thursday.
The rebel 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.
In Washington, US Secretary of State John Kerry stood side-by-side with Syrian opposition chief Ahmad Jarba in a public show of support on Thursday, but made no mention of the rebels` plea for heavy weapons to help end the war.