AMMAN: Rebels began evacuating the central neighborhoods of Syria’s third-largest city Wednesday, preparing to leave Old Homs under Syrian government control after two years of stifling siege on the neighborhoods once considered the center of Syrian opposition to President Bashar al-Assad.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the pro-government National Defense Force militias reported Wednesday at least 222 rebel combatants from Old Homs had been transported, along with their light weaponry, into the northern Homs province village of Dar al-Kabira.
But opposition activists say a full evacuation of the estimated 2,300 civilians and fighters stopped on Wednesday, but is expected to resume.
“The exit of blockaded people has stopped, for unknown reasons,” pro-opposition activist Mohammed a-Rahaal told Syria Direct from rebel-held northern Homs province. “No more that 400 people left, including a number of wounded people in the two convoys.”
A-Rahaal said he expected all rebels, wounded people and civilians would be evacuated from the 13 encircled neighborhoods by Friday.
A rebel combatant kisses the ground in Old Homs before departing the city in a United Nations-supervised evacuation Wednesday. Photo courtesy of @ElDorar1.
Rebels and civilians gathered Wednesday morning in front of the Khalid Bin Waleed Mosque, which became a symbol for anti-government Syrians after 10 unarmed protesters were killed by government forces during a July 2011 funeral procession for a demonstrator shot during a protest.
Dozens of videosuploadedonline Wednesday depicted young rebel combatants and elderly, frail Homs citizens disembarking the buses after a five kilometer journey from central Homs northwest to the rebel-held village of Dar al-Kabira.
Combatants and citizens arrived in the northern Homs province town of Dar al-Kabira on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Brown Moses.
The evacuation began five days after rebels and government troops agreed to a truce whereby between 2,200 and 2,400 rebels, wounded people and civilians will depart Old Homs, encircled by government troops for nearly two years.
In exchange, rebel groups encircling the majority-Shiite Aleppo province towns of Nubl and Zahra agreed to allow a convoy of humanitarian aid into the towns beginning Wednesday, the Observatory reported. Official Hezbollah channel al-Manar disputed the Observatory’s report, reporting armed groups had “halted aid caravans in Nubl and Zahra” and had begun “shelling the two villages.” Neither report could be independently verified, but sources told Syria Direct on Wednesday that aid had not arrived in the two villages, without elaborating on why.
Rebels are also expected to free dozens of prisoners, including a female Iranian detainee and Hezbollah combatants held by the Islamic Front.
Homs Governor Talal al-Barazi celebrated a “positive and optimistic atmosphere” as Syrian forces prepare to retake Old Homs.
The settlement in Old Homs is a major breakthrough leading to the restoration of safety and stability in Old Homs,” al-Barazi toldpro-government newspaper al-Watan.
The “capital of the revolution,” three years later
The central neighborhoods of Homs, Syria’s third largest city, were once known as “the capital of the revolution” against President Bashar al-Assad for the fervent anti-regime protests that shook the city in early 2011.
With the exception of a UN-supervised truce in February 2014 that allowed 1,400 citizens to evacuate and some humanitarian aid to enter the neighborhoods, government troops had allowed no people, food or medical supplies into enter the rebel-held area for nearly two years.
In mid-February, rebels began surrendering themselves, overcome by hunger and depressed by a wave of assassinations inside the neighborhoods.
“The lack of food makes people act like animals, behaving without thinking,” said Ra’ed, an opposition fighter who left Homs in early April, one of hundreds the government jubilantly reportedto have reached an agreement to lay down arms.
Now, rebels retain control of heavily populated al-Waer district, two kilometers northwest of Old Homs, as well as a swath of northern Homs province. In early 2014, a coalition of armed groups with pockets of control throughout the province announced a battle, titled “Qadimoun” or “Coming,” aiming to lift the government siege of Old Homs.
Instead, the armed groups were slowly cornered into northern Homs province, where they have been unable to penetrate the heavily fortified government checkpoints set in place since government troops laid siege to Old Homs in June 2012.