Syria rebels begin leaving Homs under truce deal

Maher Al Mounes
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Members of the Syrian government forces escort buses carrying Syrians as hundreds of civilians and Syrian rebel forces began evacuating the last opposition-held district of Waer in Homs, under a deal with the Syrian regime, on December 9, 2015

Members of the Syrian government forces escort buses carrying Syrians as hundreds of civilians and Syrian rebel forces began evacuating the last opposition-held district of Waer in Homs, under a deal with the Syrian regime, on December 9, 2015 (AFP Photo/Louai Beshara)

Homs (Syria) (AFP) - Syrian rebels began evacuating the last opposition-held district in Homs, paving the way for President Bashar al-Assad's regime to take full control of the country's third-largest city.

Hundreds of Syrian rebels and civilians were leaving the Waer district under a rare local ceasefire agreed with the regime at the start of December.

Some 2,000 rebels and their families will abandon Waer in Homs -- once dubbed the "capital" of Syria's revolution -- to travel to other opposition-held areas, after enduring a three-year siege that saw the district heavily shelled.

The evacuation comes as a broad range of Syrian opposition groups, including armed factions, hold unprecedented talks in the Saudi capital on forming a united front for talks with Assad.

The talks follow a major diplomatic push to resolve Syria's nearly five-year civil war, and intensified foreign military action including Russia's first strikes from a submarine Tuesday.

An AFP journalist in Homs saw women and children boarding white buses as the evacuation began early on Wednesday. Many appeared haggard but some smiled, waved and gave the thumbs-up from inside the buses.

More than 100 opposition fighters, some carrying light weapons, boarded five green buses further away.

Provincial Governor Talal Barazi told reporters that some 700 people -- including 400 women and children and 300 fighters -- would be evacuated from the district Wednesday.

Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the buses headed to the northwestern province of Idlib.

- Symbolic victory -

Under the deal, Waer's rebel forces, who range from secular fighters to jihadists including members of Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, are to completely leave the district by the end of January.

Once the evacuation is complete, police, but not troops, will reenter the district, where some 75,000 people currently live, down from 300,000 before the conflict began.

Homs saw some of the largest protests of the early uprising against Assad in 2011, and later some of the fiercest fighting after opposition forces took up weapons in response to a government crackdown.

Regaining total control of the city is an important symbolic victory for the regime, which has lost large swathes of the surrounding province to rebels and the Islamic State jihadist group.

The United Nations has been pushing for such localised ceasefires as broader efforts have failed to end Syria's war, despite the deaths of more than 250,000 people and millions being forced from their homes.

The biggest diplomatic push yet was launched last month in Vienna with top diplomats from 17 countries -- including key international backers and opponents of Assad -- agreeing on a roadmap to set up a transition government in six months and hold elections within 18 months.

The plan calls for negotiations between opposition representatives and the regime by January 1. Washington is hoping to host another round of international talks in New York on December 18.

- Diplomatic efforts -

A two-day meeting that began Wednesday in Riyadh, meanwhile, marks the first time a broad range of Syrian political and armed opposition factions have come together.

Some 100 delegates aim to form a unified bloc for talks with Assad, though analysts say deep divisions will be difficult to overcome.

The fate of Assad is a key question, with some Western- and Arab-backed rebel groups insisting he must step down immediately.

Internal opposition groups disagree, as do Assad's key backers Tehran and Moscow.

In another sign of diplomatic efforts being ratcheted up, Russia, the United States and the United Nations will hold talks on Syria in Geneva on Friday.

US State Department spokesman John Kirby said the meeting would discuss moving forward on a political transition in Syria and "trying to get at the framework and the architecture for a ceasefire".

International concern over the conflict has grown with the emergence of IS as a major threat, after it seized large parts of Syria and Iraq and carried out operations abroad including last month's Paris attacks.

The jihadists have also kidnapped hundreds of people, including more than 200 members of Syria's Assyrian Christian minority in the northeast province of Hasakeh in February.

On Wednesday, IS freed 25 Assyrian captives, including two children, the Assyrian Human Rights Network said.

A US-led coalition launched air strikes against IS in Iraq and Syria last year.

Russia in September began its own intervention, though critics have accused Moscow of mostly hitting moderate rebels.

The latest Russian strikes hit hundreds of targets, Moscow's defence chief said, and helped Syrian special forces recover the black box of a Russian warplane downed by Turkey last month.