Syria conflict: Rebels evacuated from Old City of Homs

The BBC's Paul Wood on the evacuation from the city once dubbed the "capital of the revolution"

Hundreds of rebels have been evacuated from their last stronghold in the central Syrian city of Homs.

Two convoys of buses have so far left the Old City under a deal brokered by Iran and facilitated by the UN.

The withdrawal is part of a deal that will also see rebels release dozens of captives and ease two sieges.

It marks the end of three years of resistance in the central city, once dubbed the "capital of the revolution" against President Bashar al-Assad.

Much of Homs fell to the opposition in 2011, but over the past two years government forces have gradually regained control by subjecting areas once home to tens of thousands to continuous siege and bombardment.

At the scene

The damage to buildings in the Old City, particularly those in the Warsha district, is substantial.

No shots are being fired, but smoke is rising from the Khalidiya, Jib al-Jandali and Bab Houd areas.

Residents said the rebels had set fire to their bases and possessions before heading to the buses.

No journalists were allowed to observe the evacuation of the first batch of rebels and members of their families.

Sources are saying that the operation in Homs is happening in tandem with the delivery of food and medical aid to the besieged towns of Nubul and Zahraa, on the outskirts of the city of Aleppo.

In February, the government allowed about 1,400 people to be evacuated from the Old City.

'World failed us'

The BBC's Paul Wood in Beirut says the rebel fighters and their families were sad and bitter as they said goodbye to a place they swore they would never leave.

They buckled finally, our correspondent adds, after the government's forces employed the tactic of what some Syrian army officers called "surrender or starve".

"The rest of the world failed us," one activist told the BBC as he prepared to leave.

A video posted online by activists on Wednesday morning showed the first group of fighters, some with their faces covered, walking in a line towards green buses.

They were watched by around a dozen men in uniform and flak jackets marked "police". In front of the buses was a white vehicle with the markings of the UN.

Each fighter was allowed to take one bag and a rifle, and one rocket-propelled-grenade launcher was permitted per bus.

Buses preparing to take rebels from Old City of Homs (7 May 2014) A photo posted online showed two buses driving through the frontline towards the evacuation point
Syrian Red Crescent ambulances with first-aid volunteers teams evacuated of wounded from Old City of Homs (7 May 2014) The Syrian Red Crescent published a photograph showing its ambulances evacuated the wounded
Captured Syrian government soldiers released by rebels run through Aleppo's Bustan al-Qasr crossing (7 May 2014) The withdrawal is part of a deal that has also seen rebels free captives, including these soldiers in Aleppo
Government-controlled district of Homs (7 May 2014) Over the past two years government forces have gradually regained control of Homs

The first convoy arrived soon afterwards at the rebel-held towns of Talbisah and Dar al-Kabira, about 20km (12 miles) to the north.

Wael, an activist in the nearby village of Tair Maale, said he had received several of the evacuees.

"I asked one of my friends, who is now resting in my house, and he said to me that he felt hungry, and in pain and tearful over leaving Homs," he told AFP. "He said he felt his soul being pulled out of his body as he left Homs."

Battle for Homs

  • March 2011: Anti-government protests erupt in Homs within weeks of them beginning in Deraa
  • May 2011: Tanks sent into Homs to suppress the dissent; opposition supporters take up arms and oust security forces from several areas
  • February-March 2012: Military launches operation designed to crush the resistance in Homs; Baba Amr district subjected to month of relentless bombardment before rebels withdraw
  • May 2012: Between 15% and 20% of Homs under opposition control, including Old City
  • March 2013: Government launches major offensive to consolidate its control of Homs
  • July 2013: Rebels leave Khalidiya district after government assault including Hezbollah fighters
  • January 2014: Only Old City still held by rebels; up to 3,000 civilians trapped there, without access to food and medical supplies
  • February 2014: UN-Red Crescent operation evacuates 1,400 people from rebel-held areas
  • May 2014: Rebel fighters evacuated from Old City

Homs governor Talal al-Barazi told the BBC that the operation was scheduled to end on Wednesday.

He was earlier quoted by the state news agency Sana as saying that an estimated 2,000 people would be evacuated overall. Local activists said the first 600 to leave were wounded fighters and civilians.

At the same time, rebels in the northern province of Aleppo began allowing humanitarian aid into two predominantly Shia Muslim towns loyal to President Assad - Nubul and Zahraa - that they have been besieging, activists said.

The deal, which was brokered by the Iranian ambassador and agreed only after many months of negotiation, also saw the release of a number of hostages being held by rebels in Aleppo and Latakia provinces. One report said a Russian national and several Iranians were among them.

Our correspondent says the armed groups within the Old City of Homs were deeply divided about whether to accept a ceasefire. The al-Nusra Front, which is affiliated to al-Qaeda, attempted to break the siege with a series of suicide bombings, but failed.

One more district of Homs is still holding out - al-Wair on the periphery, where an estimated 200,000 people displaced from other areas are said to be living. But our correspondent says fighters there have accepted a ceasefire and will leave, too, as soon as arrangements are made.

More than 150,000 people are believed to have been killed since the uprising against President Assad began in March 2011. Another nine million have fled their homes.

Despite the conflict, the Syrian government is planning to hold a presidential election on 3 June. The opposition have dismissed the poll, which Mr Assad is widely expected to win, as a farce.

Map of Homs, showing Old Homs

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