Syria rebels start to evacuate 'capital of revolution'

HOMS, Syria - The evacuation of rebel-held parts of Homs city began Wednesday under an unprecedented deal which hands back control to the government less than a month before Syria's presidential election.

After nearly two years of government siege, civilians and rebel forces began to leave the Old City and surrounding areas on buses taking them to opposition territory in northern Homs province.

Their departure saves both sides the prospect of a drawn-out, potentially devastating battle, and it allows rebels to leave with some of their weaponry.

The deal effectively turns over the city once dubbed the "capital of the revolution" to government control ahead of a June 3 election expected to return President Bashar al-Assad to office.

The evacuation began at around 10 am (0700GMT), with three buses carrying civilians and fighters, some of them wounded, departing the devastated Old City, a rebel negotiator told AFP.

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, under the gaze of regime police and accompanied by a white UN car.

Around an hour after the operation began, negotiator Abul Hareth al-Khalidi said, a first bus had arrived in the north of the province.

And by early afternoon, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 222 people had left out of approximately 1,200 believed to be in the Old City.

'Tearful' departure

The evacuees are being transferred to the rebel-held town of Dar al-Kebira, 20 kilometres (12 miles) from Homs.

Wael, an activist in the northern Homs province village of Termaaleh, told AFP he had received some of the evacuees, who were emotional.

"I asked one of my friends, who is now resting in my house, and he said to me that he felt hungry, and in pain and tearful over leaving Homs," he said.

"He said he felt his soul being pulled out of his body as he left Homs." The deal between the regime and rebels, mediated by Iran's ambassador to Syria, was reached as part of an exchange for a number of hostages being held by opposition fighters in the northern city of Aleppo.

And under the agreement, fighters will also allow aid into two Shiite majority towns in Aleppo province, Nubol and Zahraa, where some 45,000 people are under rebel siege.

The Observatory said by early afternoon aid had started to reach the two towns, and that an unspecified number of released hostages had arrived in the regime-held coastal city of Latakia.

Homs returns to government

Once the Homs operation is complete, the evacuated areas are to be turned over to the government, which is expected to send in forces to sweep for mines and explosives.

The regime will then have control of all but one major area of Homs city.

While the area being reclaimed by the government is relatively small, it retains huge symbolic importance for the opposition.

At the start of Syria's uprising in March 2011, Homs came to be known as the "capital of the revolution" because of its massive anti-regime protests.

And after the opposition took up arms in response to a brutal government crackdown, the city gained iconic status among the opposition for resisting multiple offensives.

During a nearly two-year government blockade, which left around 3,000 people trapped, food and medical supplies dwindled.

In February, a UN-Red Crescent operation successfully evacuated around 1,400 people, and delivered limited aid to the besieged areas.

But hundreds of fighters and wounded people unable to make it to evacuation points were left behind, and government forces launched a fresh assault last month.

Many of those evacuated in February moved to the rebel-held Waer district, which will be the only remaining opposition area left in Homs city after the Old City operation.

Negotiations are underway for a similar deal to be implemented in Waer, according to government and opposition officials.