Syrian rebels, families begin leaving Homs district in deal with government

Syrian rebels, families begin leaving Homs district in deal with government

Almost 1,500 people, mostly civilians, left the last opposition-held district of Homs on Saturday (March 18) under a controversial Russian-supervised deal to bring Syria's third city under full government control.

Some 1,500 fighters and civilians aboard 40 buses left Waer, the last opposition-held district in Homs, to Jarabulus in northern Syria, the sources said on condition of anonymity due to restrictions on speaking to media.

Thousands are expected to leave Waer in the coming weeks in the final phase of the agreement, which had stalled in recent months.

After the Arab Spring broke out in 2011, the city of Homs saw massive riots against President Bashar Assad, which gradually turned violent, as peaceful demonstrations led to the rise of an armed insurgency.

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

The evacuation of Waer, a north-western district that has been under siege by the army for years, is the latest in a series of "reconciliation" deals struck by the government in opposition-controlled areas.

Evacuees will be bussed out of Homs to Jarablus, an area in northern Syria held by rebels backed by Turkey, according to UK-based group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Homs Governor Talal al-Barazi told SANA reporter that the governorate has completed all logistic preparations and measures for getting the first batch of the gunmen out of al-Waer in the framework of implementing the reconciliation agreement which was agreed upon last week.

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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.

But the opposition decries them as a tactic of forcibly displacing people who oppose Mr Assad after years of bombardment and siege. 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.

As the Syrian military continues their offensive against Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL), Damascus has intensified its efforts to persuade some of the rebel groups to surrender and sign reconciliation agreements.

The powerful ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham group also said the airstrike was carried out by the US-led coalition, adding that "the targeting mosques and places of worship is a war crime".

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