The planned evacuation of fighters from rebel-held parts of the Syrian city of Homs has been delayed by a day, activists say, though a cease-fire is still holding in the country’s third-largest city.
Local activists said it wasn’t clear why Syrian forces weren’t allowing the first phase of several hundred rebel fighters to leave the Old City area on Saturday.
Rebels in the city agreed on Friday to surrender territory in exchange for safe passage to other opposition-held areas.
The agreement came after a blockade by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces caused widespread hunger in rebel-held parts of the city, which have been hit relentlessly by government artillery and airstrikes.
One Homs-based activist said rebels were gathering wounded fighters, so they could be taken out as a first priority, beginning on Sunday.
Syrian Red Crescent ambulances are expected to evacuate the injured from the Old City under the terms of the 48-hour deal, and rebels will release an Iranian officer they are holding prisoner.
While the deal will leave the city in effective control of government forces, there are reports of fighters living among the population in the densely populated al-Waer neighbourhood.
‘Capital of revolution’
Homs is known as the ‘capital of the revolution’ for street protests against the government during the early days of the Syrian uprising in 2011.
Activists inside the city told Al Jazeera they blame a punishing siege and the lack of international assistance for the rebel agreement to withdraw.
“It is impossible to take the city back but we were so weak. We were hungry. We couldn’t even walk 100 metres. I used to weigh 73kg, now I weigh 53kg”, said an unidentified activist from Homs.
Rebel-held areas were surrounded and face fierce bombardment since the government launched a campaign to take the city in 2012.
Homs is strategically important as it connects government strongholds along the western coast with the capital, Damascus.
“The regime is concentrating on retaking strategic territory, it is part of their plan to partition the country” said Khaled el-Khoja, of the Syrian National Council, an opposition block in exile.
In February, a deal reached by the opposition and the Syrian government at peace talks in Geneva allowed most civilians to leave rebel-held areas of Homs.