BEIRUT (AP) — Exhausted and worn out from a year-long siege, hundreds of Syrian rebels on Wednesday left their last remaining bastions in the heart of the central city of Homs under a ceasefire deal with government forces, opposition activists and the city's governor said.
The exit of some 1,200 fighters and civilians will mark a de-facto end of the rebellion in the battered city, which was one of the first places to rise up against President Bashar Assad's rule, earning its nickname as "the capital of the revolution."
Gaining full control of Syria's third largest city is a major win for Assad on multiple levels. Militarily, it solidifies the government hold on a swath of territory in central Syria, linking the capital Damascus with government strongholds along the coast and giving a staging ground to advance against rebel territory further north. Politically, gains on the ground boost Assad's hold on power as he seeks to add a further claim of legitimacy in presidential elections set for June 3.
By early afternoon Wednesday, over 400 fighters had boarded several batches of buses that departed from a police command center on the edge of Homs' rebel-held areas, heading north, opposition activists said. Many of the rebels were wounded, and it was unclear how many civilians were among them.
An activist who goes by the name of Abu Yassin al-Homsi said all fighters and any remaining civilians would leave the city before the end of the day. According to the deal, the rebels were being taken a few kilometers (miles) north to the rebel held towns of Talbiseh and al-Dar al-Kabira on the northern edge of Homs province — a short drive away.
Al-Homsi said each fighter was allowed to carry his rifle and a bag of belongings with him. One rocket propelled grenade launcher and a machinegun were also allowed on each bus in line with the agreement, he said.
"We are very sad for what is happening today. We kept urging the international community to lift the siege but there was no response," al-Homsi said. "We have lost more than 2,000 martyrs in nearly two years of siege."
The evacuation appeared to be taking place in an organized manner with no violations by either side. Homs governor Talal Barazi confirmed that the rebels started leaving the old districts. State TV said government forces would enter the evacuated neighborhoods once rebels leave entirely.
The rebels will retain one toe-hold in Homs. Fighters in the Waer district, just outside Homs' Old City, have so far refused to join the evacuation. Some activists said negotiations were underway for a similar deal there.
The evacuation was a bitter moment for the exhausted rebels, who had pledged to fight to the end in 13 neighborhoods in and around the historic quarters of Homs where they had been holed up under siege for more than a year. Some fighters had said they would rather die than give up the city.
The rebels include hardcore fighters from the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front group and other Islamic factions.
Homs, with a prewar population of 1.2 million was among the first to rise up against Assad in early 2011 with waves of exuberant anti-Assad protests. As Syria's conflict turned into outright civil war, rebels took control of nearly 70 percent of the city, whose population represents Syria's mix — with a largely pro-rebel Sunni majority and a pro-Assad Alawite minority, along with Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities.
The city quickly came under a series of crushing government offensives, turning into a battleground that left entire blocks and much of its historic quarters in ruins. Thousands of people were killed and almost all its residents fled. Tit-for-tat sectarian killings rose, reflecting the increasingly religious dimension of the conflict nationwide.
Rebels were slowly pushed back. For well over a year, government forces have been besieging rebels in around a dozen districts around its ancient bazaars. The siege caused severe shortages in food and medicine, and heavy bombardment blasted the rebel-held areas. A first major group — around 1,400 people, including fighters and residents — evacuated earlier this year in a U.N.-mediated operation.
The last die-hards held out for weeks. But they agreed Friday to the cease-fire deal, leading the way to evacuation.
In videos of Wednesday's evacuation posted online by activists, two green public buses carrying rebels drive along a dusty, battered road past shattered, bombed-out buildings, their upper floors collapsed.
In one video, fighters with bags of belongings, some with their faces covered, board a bus as men in black uniforms labeled police oversee the process. At least one U.N.-marked vehicle was parked nearby. The videos appeared genuine and matched the AP's reporting on the evacuation.
While the agreement represents a demoralizing admission of defeat by opposition forces, it can also be seen as a face-saving deal for both sides.
Weakened rebels, for whom Homs' collapse was only a matter of time, get a safe exit, while the government saves manpower and weapons and claim it was able to retake the last rebel bastions without spilling more blood.
In exchange for their evacuation, activists say opposition fighters will allow aid into two northern pro-government villages, Nubul and Zahra, besieged by the rebels for more than a year.
Director of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdurrahman, said roads to Nubul and Zahra in northern Syria were opened and aid arrived on the edge of the villages Wednesday as the evacuations from Homs were underway.
Also as part of the Homs deal, rebels would also release up to 70 pro-government gunmen and an Iranian woman they hold captive in the northern city of Aleppo, several activists said.
It was not immediately clear whether they had been released. Abdurrahman said that among those released by the rebels was a group of people captured in the coastal province of Latakia, a government stronghold, where opposition fighters seized dozens of women and children in an offensive in August.
He said rebels also released 15 soldiers they were holding in Aleppo province.