Saturday 22 July 2017

Hundreds of Syrian fighters evacuated from last rebel area of Homs

Members of the Syrian Red Crescent help opposition fighters and their families leave the al-Waer area of Homs (AP)
Members of the Syrian Red Crescent help opposition fighters and their families leave the al-Waer area of Homs (AP)

Scores of Syrian opposition fighters and their families have begun leaving the last rebel neighbourhood in Homs as part of a Russian-backed evacuation deal.

By sunset, 344 fighters and their families had left the city - once a centre of protest during the 2011 uprising - completing the evacuation for the day.

They were bound for a town on the Turkish border after the latest in a series of local agreements in which insurgents have relocated to the rebel-held north after months or years under siege in major cities.

Green government buses ferried the fighters, many carrying assault rifles, and their families from the northern al-Waer neighbourhood to Homs' western entrance.

There they disembarked and had some of their bags searched under the supervision of Syrian and Russian military police. Three fighters arrived in wheelchairs.

The men, women and children, most carrying their belongings in suitcases and plastic bags, boarded white buses taking them to the northern rebel-held town of Jarablous on the Turkish border.

The evacuees were assisted by Syrian Arab Red Crescent members as they loaded their belongings onto the busses.

The al-Waer area is home to about 75,000 people and has been under a government siege since 2013, triggering shortages of medicine and occasionally food.

The evacuation is the third phase of an agreement reached last year that saw hundreds of fighters and their families leave the area.

Homs governor Talal Barrazi said around 1,500 fighters are expected to leave al-Waer, with only their personal rifles, over the next six to eight weeks.

Once the first batch has left, food and basic aid will enter the area, Mr Barrazi said.

He had said earlier this week that fighters who decide to stay can benefit from an earlier government amnesty.

An official at the governor's office said 344 fighters and about 1,050 civilians were heading to Jarablous aboard 35 buses.

Some opposition activists have criticised the agreement, saying it aims to displace 12,000 al-Waer residents, including 2,500 fighters.

The opposition's Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights called the evacuees "internally displaced" people.

Mr Barrazi denied statements that said al-Waer residents are being forced to leave their homes, adding that thousands will stay on and many departing because of violence will return in the future.

Maher Kayyal, the head of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent's operations in Homs, said they were informed of three medical emergency cases, adding that the number might rise to six.

Ten ambulances were available at the scene.

"There are no difficulties so far as all parties respect the agreement," he said earlier in the day.

Once the evacuation is completed, the government will be in full control of Homs for the first time in years.

In the early days of the uprising, the city saw huge, peaceful demonstrations against the Assad family's four-decade rule.

Those and other protests were met with a fierce government crackdown that led to the rise of an armed insurgency.

At one point, the rebels controlled much of the city but government forces gradually regained control.

The civil war, which entered its seventh year earlier this month, has killed more than 400,000 people and displaced more than half the country's population.

AP

Press Association

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