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The evacuation of rebels from Homs began Wednesday, after two years of government siege on the city once known as the “capital of Syria's revolution.” The last remaining fighters and citizen holdouts were exhausted and depleted of food, medical supplies and public support for the rebellion.
The evacuation, part of the first major deal struck between rebels and the regime since Syria’s war began three years ago, could mark the end of the rebellion in Syria’s third-largest city, which is now almost entirely back in the hands of President Bashar al-Assad. If the deal is honored, rebels will exit the 13 neighborhoods in Homs’ historic Old City, now all but leveled by regime warplanes, where they had blockaded themselves during two years of grueling urban warfare.
Videos uploaded to YouTube by opposition activists on Wednesday showed dozens of men being loaded into at least two repurposed public buses and escorted along a road by United Nations vehicles. Talal Barazi, the governor of Homs, also confirmed the evacuation in an interview with the state news agency SANA.
The Syrian Observatory on Human Rights, a London-based monitoring group, told Al Jazeera that about 1,325 armed rebels, some of them badly injured, and around 600 civilians had been evacuated from the Old City so far, out of more than 2,500 rebels and citizens believed to be remaining despite two years of regime shelling and a blockade that caused severe food and medical shortages.
Those evacuated are being transported to the rebel-held northern suburbs of Homs, including a-Dar al-Kabira and Talbiseh. Several families from Syria’s Christian minority remain within the Old City, refusing to evacuate, activists said, though that information could not be independently verified.
The loss of Homs has been painted as a devastating blow for the rebels, though defeat had seemed inevitable for months.
For their part, opposition activists said the fall of Homs came only after the international community failed the rebels. Morale had sunk after a short-lived cease-fire brokered at an international peace conference in Geneva in February swiftly fell apart, exposing the inability of the rebels’ Western backers to pressure Assad as well as the cracks between the political opposition and the disjointed rebel factions on the ground in Syria.
“The revolutionaries only withdrew after they were let down,” Kanan al-Homsi, a media activist on the outskirts of Homs, told Al Jazeera, using a nom de guerre. “Their withdrawal is a loss but not a defeat.” Sectarian divisions within the predominantly Sunni Muslim rebels and poor coordination have also hampered rebel efforts, activists say.
Though details of the deal, which was struck on Friday, have not been released, it was reported that 70 pro-regime prisoners would be freed and that the rebels would relax their stranglehold on two Shia, regime-aligned villages outside Aleppo.
Rami Abdurrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory, said roads to Nubul and Zahra in northern Syria were opened and that aid arrived on the edge of the villages Wednesday while the evacuations from Homs were underway.
After anti-Assad protests first broke out in Homs in 2011, the city spiraled into one of the war’s most brutalized battlefields, and now lies largely in ruins. But the Syrian government has nonetheless scored a critical victory by finally clearing out the rebels from the city just weeks ahead of a June 3 presidential election.