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Middle East

Syria crisis: Rebels leave Homs

The pullout ends a three-year-long rebellion in the central city

Hundreds of Syrian rebels have been evacuated from Homs, in a bitter end to three years of resistance in the central city, following a cease-fire deal struck with government forces on Friday.

By early Wednesday evening, around 600 fighters had boarded buses parked outside a police command centre on the edge of Homs' rebel-held areas, the city's governor, Tala Barazi, confirmed. The drivers are believed to have taken them a few kilometres north to the nearby rebel held towns of Talbiseh and al-Dar al-Kabira, on the northern edge of Homs province.

State television reported that government forces would enter the evacuated neighbourhoods once all the rebels had left.

Some 1,200 fighters, many of whom were wounded, and an uncertain number of civilians, have now left Homs, which was one of the first places to rise up against President Bashar Assad and his government. His regime is likely to regard the new gain as a symbolic victory ahead of next month's presidential election.

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The rebels had pledged to fight to the end in 13 neighbourhoods in and around the historic quarters of Homs where they had been holed up under siege for more than a year. Some fighters had said they would rather die than give up the city.

The rebels are believed to be members of the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front group and other Islamic factions.

By Friday, even the most committed fighters had agreed to the cease-fire deal, which lead to their pullout from the historic city nicknamed the “capital of the revolution”.

Abu Yassin al-Homsi, an activist, told reporters all fighters and any remaining civilians would leave the city by the end of the day.

“We are very sad for what is happening today. We kept urging the international community to lift the siege but there was no response,” al-Homsi said. “We have lost more than 2,000 martyrs in nearly two years of siege.”

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Meanwhile, fighters in the Waer district, just outside Homs' Old City, have so far refused to join the evacuation, but there were reports from some activists that negotiations were underway for a similar deal there.

As part of the deal, it was planned that the rebels would also release up to 70 pro-government gunmen and an Iranian woman they have held captive in the northern city of Aleppo, several activists said.

In exchange for the retreat, activists say opposition fighters will allow aid into two northern pro-government villages, Nubul and Zahra, besieged by rebels for more than a year.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that no aid had yet entered Nubul and Zahra.

By gaining full control of Syria’s third largest city, Assad’s government has now re-gained its hold on a swath of territory in central Syria, linking the capital Damascus with government strongholds along the coast and giving a platform from which to advance against rebel territory further north.

Additional reporting by AP