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Rebels begin evacuating Syrian city of Homs

FILE - This file photo released on Thursday Nov. 29, 2012 by the anti-government activist group Homs City Union of The Syrian Revolution, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Syrian citizens walking in a destroyed street that was attacked by Syrian forces warplanes, at Abu al-Hol street in Homs province, Syria. Syria
FILE - This file photo released on Thursday Nov. 29, 2012 by the anti-government activist group Homs City Union of The Syrian Revolution, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Syrian citizens walking in a destroyed street that was attacked by Syrian forces warplanes, at Abu al-Hol street in Homs province, Syria. Syria's government and rebels agreed to a ceasefire on Friday, May 2, 2014 in the battleground city of Homs to allow hundreds of fighters holed up in its old quarters to evacuate, a deal that will bring the country's third-largest city under control of forces loyal to President Bashar Assad. (AP Photo/Homs City Union of The Syrian Revolution, File)
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By Bassem Mroue, The Associated Press

BEIRUT - Exhausted and worn out from a year-long siege, hundreds of Syrian rebels on Wednesday left their sole remaining bastions in the central city of Homs under a ceasefire deal struck last week with government forces, opposition activists and the city's governor said.

The exit of some 1,200 fighters and civilians from rebel strongholds in Homs 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."

By early afternoon Wednesday, over 200 fighters had boarded two batches of buses that departed from the police command centre on the edge of Homs' rebel-held areas, heading north, opposition activists said. Many of the rebels 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, adding that they would be taken a few kilometres (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, 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."

Homs governor Talal Barazi also confirmed that the rebels have started leaving the old districts of Homs.

The evacuation appeared to be taking place in an organized manner with no violations by either side. But it was a bitter moment for the exhausted rebels, who have been holed up in the historic quarters of Homs where they had pledged to fight till the end. Some fighters had said they would rather die than give up Homs.

Isolated and battered after months of bombardment and blockades that caused widespread hunger, they agreed last Friday to a cease-fire deal that would allow hundreds of fighters to evacuate from 13 neighbourhoods around the city's historic centre where they had barricaded themselves.

The rebels include hardcore fighters from the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front group and other Islamic factions.

Their exit hands over to Assad's forces a strategic but largely destroyed city ahead of presidential elections scheduled to be held on June 3. Once the evacuation is completed, the government will have control of all but one area of Homs, the rebel-held Waer district just outside the Old City. Some activists said negotiations were underway for a similar deal there.

Homs, Syria's third largest city located in the central western plains, was among the first to rise up against Assad in early 2011 with waves of exuberant anti-Assad protests.

It 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.

For well over a year, the government forces have been besieging rebels in the string of districts they held in the city centre, around its ancient bazaars. The siege caused severe shortages in food and medicine.

Earlier this year, around 1,400 people, including fighters who surrendered, were evacuated from the city in a U.N.-mediated operation.

Homs has also seen the ever-increasing religious dimension of the conflict, with tit-for-tat sectarian killings in the city where majority Sunni Muslims once lived alongside Christians and Alawites.

Most recently, on April 7, a masked gunman killed a beloved, elderly Dutch priest who lived in a monastery in a Homs rebel-held district after deciding to stay alongside civilians who were unable to leave.

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 can save 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 Syrian were opened and aid arrived on the edge of the villages Wednesday as the evacuations from Homs were underway.

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.

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