Busloads of Syrians including rebel fighters left the last insurgent-held area of Homs on Wednesday under a rare local truce agreement in Syria's nearly five-year conflict that will shore up government control over the city.
U.N. and Red Crescent officials were on hand to oversee implementation of the deal, which will see the gunmen transported to areas further north in Hama and Idlib province. They include members of the Al-Qaeda branch in Syria, the Nusra Front, and an array of radical and more moderate rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Around 300 civilians, mainly women and children, are also being evacuated from the Waer district of Homs as part of the deal. They included 20 wounded civilians who were loaded into ambulances waiting just outside.
The international community is making its most serious push yet for a cease-fire and peace talks to end the conflict that began in 2011. Many hope that such local deals can be replicated across Syria to create pockets of peace and a climate conducive to international talks leading up to a transitional government.
The deal echoes a local cease-fire agreed in September elsewhere in Syria under which rebel fighters were supposed to be transferred to Idlib, though it has yet to be fully implemented.
The United Nations is presiding over implementation of the deal, which was agreed directly between the Syrian sides. Some diplomats say local cease-fires may be the most effective way of gradually bringing peace to a country where more than 250,000 people have been killed, though one concluded in Homs in 2014 was widely seen as a forced surrender.
Syria peace talks involving world powers in Vienna in October called for a nationwide cease-fire and a renewal of U.N.-brokered talks between the rival Syrian sides.
Several buses left the Homs district of Waer early Wednesday and others were queuing up to leave on its outskirts, witnesses said. Children on buses waiting to leave peaked around the drawn curtains and aid workers handed out juice.
“The Waer neighborhood arrangements will be completely safe and there will be no weapons in Waer after the implementation of the agreement,” Homs governor Talal al-Barazi said, adding security forces would go back to work in the area and would be the only ones armed.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said about 750 people were expected to leave during the day for rebel-held areas in the Hama and Idlib provinces.
Priority is being given to women, children and the severely wounded, the Observatory's head, Rami Abdulrahman, said. But the evacuation will include scores of fighters who reject the truce, he said, among them a small group from Nusra Front.
The Waer deal is similar to one struck in May 2014 in Homs' Old City. There, the government assumed control of the quarter after about 2,000 rebels were granted safe passage to opposition areas north of Homs. The area was destroyed and thousands of civilians were killed or forced to flee, and rebels surrendered only after they were starved and outgunned.
The Observatory said the new Waer deal was better for the rebels than the 2014 agreement because some fighters will stay in the district and the deal will be implemented in stages. Humanitarian aid reached the Waer district last week under the terms of the agreement.
The Syrian army and allied militia launched a major ground offensive north of Homs city after Russia, Assad's main ally, began carrying out air strikes in support of the Syrian military more than two months ago. Homs was a major center of the uprising against Assad.
The Homs deal follows the stalling of a separate plan aimed at halting fighting between rebels and government forces near Damascus.
In late September, Iran and Turkey, which back opposing sides in the Syrian conflict, helped bring about local cease-fires in the town of Zabadani near the Lebanese border and in two villages in the northwestern province of Idlib.
Al Jazeera and wire services