Last fighters begin to leave former Syrian rebel stronghold of Homs

Posted March 19, 2017

Residents and fighters began leaving a rebel district in the central Syrian city of Homs, around a week after a ceasefire agreement was reached with the government, state media and a monitoring group reported. Their departure, after intense negotiations, involves the movement of more than 1,500 people to the northeastern region of Aleppo under the supervision of the Red Crescent and the military police of Syria and Russian Federation.

Homs Governor Talal al-Barazi said the evacuation process was being overseen by Syrian and Russian forces, as well as the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, according to the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency. The Russian-supervised evacuation of Waer was agreed earlier this month and is expected to last several weeks.

Completion of the Waer agreement will bring Homs city -once known as the "capital of the revolution" - under the full control of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Green government buses ferried the fighters, many carrying assault rifles, and their families from the northern al-Waer neighbourhood to Homs' western entrance, where they disembarked and had some of their bags searched under the supervision of Syrian and Russian military police.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that a total of 12,000 people, 2,500 of them rebels, will leave under the deal.

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Critics and opposition have described this as forcible displacement that is part of what they call the government's "starve or surrender", where rebel-held areas are besieged and bombarded until deals like this are reached.

Militants and civilians have poured into Idlib at an accelerating rate over the previous year, bussed out of other parts of western Syria that the government and allied forces recaptured from rebels. A United Nations convoy tried to gain access to the district in February but it was seized by gunmen who diverted the assistance to a government-held area.

It comes ahead of another round of UN-brokered talks that open in Geneva on Thursday in an attempt to end a conflict that has resulted in the deaths of more than 320,000 people and driven millions from their homes.

Rebel groups have been on the back foot in Syria, following Russia's intervention into the war on Assad's side, bringing its air power to bear in support of his army and its Iranian and Shiite militia allies.