Middle East

Syria conflict: Rebels evacuated from Old City of Homs

Hundreds of rebels have been evacuated from their last stronghold in the central Syrian city of Homs.

Two convoys of buses have so far left the Old City under a deal brokered by Iran and facilitated by the UN.

The withdrawal is part of a deal that will also see rebels release dozens of captives and ease two sieges.

It marks the end of three years of resistance in the central city, once dubbed the "capital of the revolution" against President Bashar al-Assad.

Much of Homs fell to the opposition in 2011, but over the past two years government forces have gradually regained control by subjecting areas once home to tens of thousands to continuous siege and bombardment.

In February, the government allowed about 1,400 people to be evacuated from the Old City.

'World failed us'

The BBC's Paul Wood in Beirut says the rebel fighters and their families were sad and bitter as they said goodbye to a place they swore they would never leave.

They buckled finally, our correspondent adds, after the government's forces employed the tactic of what some Syrian army officers called "surrender or starve".

"The rest of the world failed us," one activist told the BBC as he prepared to leave.

A video posted online by activists on Wednesday morning showed the first group of fighters, some with their faces covered, walking in a line towards green buses.

They were watched by around a dozen men in uniform and flak jackets marked "police". In front of the buses was a white vehicle with the markings of the UN.

Each fighter was allowed to take one bag and a rifle, and one rocket-propelled-grenade launcher was permitted per bus.

Image copyright Other
Image caption A photo posted online showed two buses driving through the frontline towards the evacuation point
Image copyright Syrian Red Crescent
Image caption The Syrian Red Crescent published a photograph showing its ambulances evacuated the wounded
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The withdrawal is part of a deal that has also seen rebels free captives, including these soldiers in Aleppo
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Over the past two years government forces have gradually regained control of Homs

The first convoy arrived soon afterwards at the rebel-held towns of Talbisah and Dar al-Kabira, about 20km (12 miles) to the north.

Wael, an activist in the nearby village of Tair Maale, said he had received several of the evacuees.

"I asked one of my friends, who is now resting in my house, and he said to me that he felt hungry, and in pain and tearful over leaving Homs," he told AFP. "He said he felt his soul being pulled out of his body as he left Homs."

Homs governor Talal al-Barazi told the BBC that the operation was scheduled to end on Wednesday.

He was earlier quoted by the state news agency Sana as saying that an estimated 2,000 people would be evacuated overall. Local activists said the first 600 to leave were wounded fighters and civilians.

At the same time, rebels in the northern province of Aleppo began allowing humanitarian aid into two predominantly Shia Muslim towns loyal to President Assad - Nubul and Zahraa - that they have been besieging, activists said.

The deal, which was brokered by the Iranian ambassador and agreed only after many months of negotiation, also saw the release of a number of hostages being held by rebels in Aleppo and Latakia provinces. One report said a Russian national and several Iranians were among them.

Our correspondent says the armed groups within the Old City of Homs were deeply divided about whether to accept a ceasefire. The al-Nusra Front, which is affiliated to al-Qaeda, attempted to break the siege with a series of suicide bombings, but failed.

One more district of Homs is still holding out - al-Wair on the periphery, where an estimated 200,000 people displaced from other areas are said to be living. But our correspondent says fighters there have accepted a ceasefire and will leave, too, as soon as arrangements are made.

More than 150,000 people are believed to have been killed since the uprising against President Assad began in March 2011. Another nine million have fled their homes.

Despite the conflict, the Syrian government is planning to hold a presidential election on 3 June. The opposition have dismissed the poll, which Mr Assad is widely expected to win, as a farce.