Syrian rebels begin to leave last opposition-held Homs district
Syrian rebels started leaving the last opposition-held district of Homs city on Saturday in the final phase of an evacuation deal that will bring an early center of the uprising back under government control in the conflict’s seventh year.
Fighters took with them their light weapons, as agreed, and boarded buses along with women and children. Many were headed for insurgent-held Idlib province in Syria’s northwest, or the town of Jarablus on the border with Turkey.
At least four buses had left al-Waer by mid-afternoon, and dozens more were expected to follow, to bring more than 2,500 people out of the district long besieged by government forces and their allies in the country’s civil war.
The evacuation of al-Waer is one of the largest of its kind.
It follows a number of similar deals in recent months that have brought many parts of western Syria long held by the opposition and besieged by government and allied forces back under President Bashar al-Assad’s control.
Syria’s government calls the evacuation deals, which have also taken place in besieged areas around Damascus, and in Aleppo at the end of last year, reconciliation agreements. It says they allow services and security to be restored.
The opposition has criticized the agreements, however, saying they amount to forced displacement of Assad’s opponents away from Syria’s main urban centers, often after years of siege and bombardment.
The United Nations has criticized both the use of siege tactics which precede such deals and the evacuations themselves as amounting to forcible displacement.
The al-Waer deal, backed by Syria’s ally Russia, began to be implemented in March. Thousands of people have left in a several stages. By the time it is completed, up to 20,000 people will have left the district, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group says.
Homs Governor Talal Barazi said the final phase of the evacuation would last some 20 hours, and expected it to be completed late on Saturday or early on Sunday.
“This is the last day. The number of militants expected (to leave) is around 700. With their families the total number could be around 3,000,” he told reporters in al-Waer.
Barazi said at least 20,000 inhabitants remained in al-Waer, and tens of thousands displaced during fighting would begin to return to the neighborhood after the deal was completed.
“Over the next few weeks communications networks will return” as well as electricity and water, he said.