Scores of rebel fighters and their families have begun leaving the last opposition-held area in the Syrian city of Homs, state media and witnesses say, under an evacuation deal with the government expected to be among the largest of its kind.
By midday around 100 fighters and their families had left the city, once known as the epicentre of the 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. They were bound for a town on the Turkish border after the latest in a series of local agreements in which opposition fighters have relocated to the rebel-held north after months or years under siege in the country’s major cities.
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Green government buses ferried the fighters, who were carrying assault rifles, and their families from the northern Al Waer neighbourhood to Homs’ western entrance, where they disembarked and had some of their bags searched under the supervision of Syrian and Russian military police.
The men, women and children, most of them carrying their belongings in suitcases and plastic bags, then boarded white buses that were to take them to the northern rebel-held town of Jarablous on the border with Turkey. The evacuees were assisted by Syrian Arab Red Crescent members as they put their belongings in the buses.
The Al Waer neighbourhood is home to about 75,000 people and has been under a government siege since 2013, triggering shortages of medicine, and occasionally of food. The evacuation is the third phase of an agreement reached last year that saw hundreds of fighters and their families leave the area.
Talal Barazi, the Homs governor, told Reuters news agency that about 1,500 people would depart for Aleppo’s countryside on Saturday, including at least 400 fighters.
Russian and Syrian forces were overseeing the evacuation, and the full departure of rebels from Al Waer would take about six weeks, he said.
“The preparations and the reality on the ground indicate that things will go well,” Barazi said.
The Syrian government has increasingly tried to press besieged rebel areas to surrender and accept what it calls reconciliation agreements that involve fighters departing for northern Syria.
Damascus describes such deals as a good way of bringing the country closer to peace after six years of conflict. But the opposition describes them as a tactic of forcibly displacing people who oppose Assad after years of bombardment and siege.
“There is a deliberate strategy from the Syrian government in terms of retaking some of these areas is that they lay a siege on the area preventing all kinds of supplies from getting in, including food, medical supplies etc and then they indiscriminately attack these areas,” the deputy director of emergencies at Human Rights Watch, Ole Solvang, told Al Jazeera.
“Aleppo was perhaps the most egregious example of that but we’ve seen it in many other places as well, so one of the major concerns HRW has is about these deals and the way they come about.”
Under the Al Waer deal, between 10,000 and 15,000 people would evacuate in batches over the coming weeks, according to a Britain-based war monitor and the opposition Homs Media Center.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said the buses would go to the Jarablus area in the north, held by Turkey-backed rebels.
Once completed, it would mark the biggest evacuation during the war out of one Syrian district, which is home to about 40,000 civilians and more than 2,500 fighters, the SOHR said.
The deal follows other agreements that were never fully implemented between the government and rebel groups in Al Waer, which has been targeted heavily by air strikes in recent weeks.