Last Syria rebels quit Homs Old City, residents return to ruins

Last Syria rebels quit Homs Old City, residents return to ruins

HOMS, Syria - The Syrian government was Saturday enjoying a symbolic victory as civilians began trickling back into the rubble of Homs' Old City after the last rebels left under an evacuation deal.

The pullout, completed Friday, leaves the rebels confined to a single district on the outskirts of the central city, once "the capital of the revolution" against President Bashar al-Assad.

As troops moved in to clear out explosives, hundreds of civilians began returning to see what remained of their homes in Hamidiyeh, a Christian district in the Old Town, which has been under nearly daily bombardment during a two-year siege.

Many were shocked, with tears in their eyes, as they climbed over debris to inspect the ruins, said an AFP journalist at the scene.

"My whole house is destroyed. I went to my in-laws' home, and that's destroyed too. Nothing, except a few objects, remains," said Wafa.

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 delivery had been pledged as part of an exchange that eventually saw some 2,000 people, mainly rebels, leave the Old City with a guarantee of safe passage.

Homs Governor Talal al-Barazi said "we have completed the evacuation of armed men from the Old City of Homs."

'No roof, no walls'

Most left Wednesday and Thursday, but buses carrying the last 250 rebels were delayed till Friday because fighters not involved in the deal blocked the pledged flow of food supplies into the Shiite towns of Nubol and Zahraa, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Barazi said negotiations were also well advanced for rebels to leave the Wael neighbourhood, their only remaining holdout in Homs, in the coming weeks.

State news agency SANA quoted Barazi as saying government troops had entered the Old City on Friday and began clearing it of explosives planted by the rebels.

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." The neighbourhood was devastated. Shop windows were cracked, and the few walls remaining upright were riddled with bullets.

This is not the first deal between the government and the rebels, but is the first time rebel fighters have withdrawn from an area they controlled after an accord.

It is also the first time Syria's rebels and security agencies have signed a deal after negotiations, supervised by the ambassador of key Damascus ally Iran.

UN Resident Coordinator Yaacub El Hillo, who was in Homs, welcomed the deal.

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