News Middle East

Wednesday 27 August 2014

Rebels leave 'capital of the revolution' in Syrian truce

Ruth Sherlock and Magdy Samman Amman

Published 08/05/2014 | 02:30

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Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad pose for a picture after their release by rebels, in the al-Meridian district of Aleppo. They were freed as part of a larger deal which saw the last remaining Syrian rebels in central Homs city evacuate their positions and free captives in several locations in northern Syria. REUTERS/George Ourfalian
Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad pose for a picture after their release by rebels, in the al-Meridian district of Aleppo. They were freed as part of a larger deal which saw the last remaining Syrian rebels in central Homs city evacuate their positions and free captives in several locations in northern Syria. REUTERS/George Ourfalian
Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad cheer upon the release of their comrades by rebels in Aleppo's Bustan al-Qasr. They were freed as part of a larger deal which saw the last remaining Syrian rebels in central Homs city evacuate their positions and free captives in several locations in northern Syria.  REUTERS/George Ourfalian
Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad cheer upon the release of their comrades by rebels in Aleppo's Bustan al-Qasr. They were freed as part of a larger deal which saw the last remaining Syrian rebels in central Homs city evacuate their positions and free captives in several locations in northern Syria. REUTERS/George Ourfalian
Men walk by damaged buildings in the besieged area of Homs February 24, 2014. Picture taken February 24, 2014. REUTERS/Yazan Homsy (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT)
Men walk by damaged buildings in the besieged area of Homs February 24, 2014 REUTERS/Yazan Homsy

The last remaining rebel fighters in Homs were evacuated from the Syrian city by the busload, under an unprecedented ceasefire agreement that dealt the final blow to the opposition in the place once described as the "capital of the revolution".

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After nearly two years of government siege, hundreds of weary rebels abandoned their last stronghold, the heart of the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, handing him a symbolic victory weeks before his likely re-election.

Under the deal – the most substantial in more than three years of the bloody conflict – the fighters were allowed to flee to other rebel-controlled suburbs without arrest by the regime.

In exchange, rebels in the northern province of Aleppo lifted their blockade on two pro-government villages.

EXHAUSTED

Three hundred residents were evacuated from Homs's Old City on green state buses overseen by the United Nations starting at dawn yesterday and more came out over the course of the day.

Gaunt, exhausted, and embittered, some still clutching their Kalashnikovs, the men were a far cry from the spirited activists who had initiated popular protests against the regime in 2011.

For months, residents of Homs had taken to the streets in peaceful protest, using slogans, and home-made banners to declare that "the people want the downfall of the Syrian regime".

Mr Assad responded with a force that was intended to crush the dissent immediately, using snipers to shoot residents as they protested and when they tried to bury their dead.

Shortly after, when local residents took up arms to fight back, the regime responded with tank fire and air strikes.

Baba Amr in the Old City saw some of the heaviest artillery used against a civilian district this Century, claiming thousands of lives, including that of 'The Sunday Times' reporter Marie Colvin.

Government troops and local militias loyal to Assad then blockaded the Old City, making it almost impossible for the best part of two years for food to get in, or people to get out.

Remaining residents trapped inside survived on grass and limited vegetables from their garden patch, waiting for what they knew was inevitable defeat.

Yesterday's deal was reached after months of heated negotiations between opposition representatives and officials from the Syrian regime and its closest ally Iran.

The agreement also secured the release of dozens of captives held by rebels in the northern provinces of Aleppo and Latakia.

Forces loyal to Assad, still wearing the fatigues in which they were captured, were seen running through Aleppo's Bustan al-Qasr crossing, while families separated for more than a year cried as they were reunited in Latakia.

The regime is keen to regain full control of Homs before the presidential elections set for the beginning of June, negotiators said. The evacuation of Homs comes after months of gains by the army, backed by Hizbollah, its Lebanese militant ally, along a strategic corridor of territory linking the capital Damascus with the city and Mr Assad's Alawite heartland on the Mediterranean.

The final rebel withdrawal from Homs would consolidate his military control ahead of a June 3 presidential election. Mr Assad is expected to be the runaway victor in the vote, which his opponents have dismissed as a charade. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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