Last Syria rebels quit Homs Old City, civilians return to ruins
HOMS, Syria – The last Syrian rebels left Homs' Old City Friday, May 9, under an evacuation deal that hands the government a symbolic victory, as civilians began trickling back in to find neighborhoods in rubble.
The pullout from the Old City leaves the rebels confined to a single district on the outskirts of the central city of Homs, once "the capital of the revolution" against President Bashar al-Assad.
As troops moved in to clear the Old City of explosives, hundreds of civilians began returning to see what remained of their homes in a Christian district within the area that has been under nearly daily bombardment during a two-year siege by Assad's forces.
Many were shocked, with tears in their eyes, as they climbed over debris to inspect the ruins, said an Agence France-Presse journalist at the scene.
The final convoy of rebels withdrew after a day-long delay blamed on fighters in northern Syria blocking an aid convoy destined for two pro-regime towns besieged by opposition fighters in Aleppo province.
The aid delivery had been pledged as part of an exchange for the safe passage of more than 2,000 people, mainly rebels, out of the Old City.
Homs Governor Talal al-Barazi said "we have completed the evacuation of armed men from the Old City of Homs," referring to the withdrawal, which began Wednesday, May 7.
At least 1,630 people, mostly rebels, had already left under the landmark deal, which also saw opposition fighters elsewhere in the war-torn country release dozens of women, children and soldiers taken hostage months earlier.
But 7 buses carrying the last 250 rebels were stopped Thursday, May 8, because Islamist fighters not involved in the deal blocked the pledged flow of food supplies into the Shiite towns of Nubol and Zahraa in Aleppo province, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The last rebels were finally allowed to leave Friday, as the aid convoys arrived in Zahraa, said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.
Barazi said negotiations were well advanced for the rebels to also leave that neighborhood, Waer, in the coming weeks.
The governor said the fighters and some of the civilians evacuated with them had been bussed out to the opposition-held town of Dar al-Kabira, 20 kilometers (13 miles) north of Homs.
'No roof, no walls'
State news agency SANA quoted the governor as saying government troops had entered the Old City on Friday and began clearing it of explosives planted by the rebels.
Jaqueline Fawwaz, a 30-year-old woman returning to the Old City, said "I had seen on Facebook that my home had been destroyed, but I couldn't believe it. I wanted to see it with my own eyes."
A 45-year-old who returned with her husband and did not identify herself said: "I came to check on my house, but I couldn't find it. I didn't find a roof. I didn't find walls. I only found this coffee cup, which I will take with me as a souvenir."
This is not the first deal between the government and the rebels, as a number of ceasefires have been agreed on the outskirts of Damascus.
But it is the first time that rebel fighters have withdrawn from an area they controlled after an accord.
It is also the first time Syria's rebels and security agencies sign a deal after negotiations supervised by the ambassador of key Damascus ally Iran.
The government allowed the remaining rebels in Homs to pull out with their personal weapons in return for the release of 40 Alawite women and children, an Iranian woman and 30 soldiers held hostage by rebels elsewhere in Syria, a rebel spokesman said.
The Observatory said all the hostages had been released by Thursday afternoon.
'Pawns in chess game'
Abu Wissam, a rebel fighter being evacuated from the city center, bemoaned the outside interests now at play in a conflict that began as an Arab Spring-inspired protest movement.
"Now, everyone is moved like pawns in a chess game" between regional and international powers, he told Agence France-Presse.
There have been many sieges imposed by both sides in the 3-year-old conflict but that of the Old City of Homs has been by the far longest.
Some 2,200 people were killed as near daily bombardment reduced the area to ruins.
The rebel pullout comes less than a month before a controversial presidential election, described as a farce by Western governments and the opposition, that is expected to return Assad to office. – Rappler.com