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Homs evacuation resumes after brief suspension

The suspension came after reports that aid access into two northern villages was being hindered

Published: Updated:

The evacuation of Syrian rebels from their last stronghold in the central city of Homs resumed on Wednesday after brief suspension following reports that humanitarian aid access to two villages in the north was being stalled.

The Syria Live Network has aid access into the towns of Nubl and Zahraa in the Aleppo province was being hindered.

Under the deal which allowed for the evacuation from Homs, the rebels agreed to ease their siege of the Shiite towns of Nubl and Zahraa.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels had opened the roads to allow aid into the two northern towns on Wednesday morning at the same time as the first buses collected the departing rebel fighters from Homs.

However, by mid-afternoon, planned aid had yet to reach Nubl, one resident was quoted as telling regional television channel al-Mayadeen. Rockets were also reportedly fired towards the towns, although there were no immediate reports of casualties.

A rebel negotiator told AFP that 2,000 fighters and civilians had started leaving Homs as part of the evacuation agreed between insurgents and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

The deal also calls for the release of captives held by rebels in Aleppo and Latakia provinces, and the easing of a rebel siege of two Shiite towns in northern Syria.

A video posted online by opposition activists showed a group of fighters, some with their faces covered with black or white scarves, walking in a line towards green buses.

They carried backpacks and light weapons as they boarded the buses to head out of the “capital of the revolution” which has been under army siege for almost two years.

The fighters, reportedly almost all Sunni Muslim, had held out in the Old City of Homs and neighboring districts despite being undersupplied, outgunned and subjected to more than a year of siege and bombardment by Assad’s forces.

The evacuation comes after months of gains by the army, backed by its Lebanese militant ally Hezbollah, along a strategic corridor of territory linking the capital Damascus with Homs and Assad’s Alawite heartland on the Mediterranean.

The final rebel withdrawal from the center of the city, known as the “capital of the revolution” where protests first erupted against Assad in 2011, would consolidate Assad’s military control ahead of a June 3 presidential election.

Assad is widely expected to be the runaway victor in the vote, which his opponents have dismissed as a charade.

They say no credible election can be held in a country fractured by civil war, with swathes of territory outside government control, six million people displaced and another 2.5 million refugees abroad.

Captives freed

The fighters are expected to leave Homs in up to nine convoys, carefully synchronized with the aid delivery and the release of captives held by the rebels near Nubl and Zahraa, and the town of Kassab in Latakia province.

One activist said a Russian national and several Iranians were among those being released by the rebels. There was no independent confirmation, but Moscow and Tehran have both supported Assad in the three-year-old civil war.

More than 150,000 people have died in the conflict. Millions more have fled their homes and the government has lost control of swathes of territory across the north and east. Fighting regularly kills more than 200 people a day.

Provincial governor Talal Barazi said Wednesday’s operation would ultimately clear the whole of Homs city of gunmen and weapons, suggesting rebels would also be evacuated from the suburb of al-Waer on the city’s northwestern outskirts.

Rebels in al-Waer and districts around the Old City have held out against Assad’s forces since the army drove them out of the ruins of Baba Amr district, epicenter of the rebellion, in March 2012.

Since then, the army has gradually tightened its grip around rebel areas, blocking weapons, medical supplies and food. It allowed hundreds of civilians to leave in February after lengthy U.N. mediation.

(With AFP and Reuters)