BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian rebels started withdrawing from the heart of Homs city on Wednesday, leaving an early centre of the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad and handing him a symbolic victory less than a month before his likely re-election.
Two buses carrying the first of many hundreds of fighters left the besieged city centre in an evacuation agreed between insurgents and forces loyal to Assad.
The deal also includes the release of captives held by rebels in Aleppo and Latakia provinces, and the easing of a rebel siege of two Shi’ite towns in northern Syria.
The overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim fighters had held out in the Old City of Homs and neighboring districts despite being undersupplied, outgunned and subjected to more than a year of siege and bombardment by Assad’s forces.
Video footage showed a group of men climbing aboard a green bus, watched by around a dozen men in khaki uniform and black flak jackets marked “police”. In front of the bus was a white car with the markings of the United Nations, which helped oversee the operation.
Activists said a total of 1,900 people, mainly rebel fighters, were being evacuated, starting with 600 wounded fighters and civilian relatives. But most of the people boarding the bus in central Homs appeared to be fit men of fighting age.
Later video showed them arriving in a rebel-held area north of the city. Unlike an evacuation of civilians from Homs in February, activists said they were not detained for checks by security forces and were allowed to keep their light weapons.
The evacuation comes after months of gains by the army, backed by its Lebanese militant ally Hezbollah, along a strategic corridor of territory linking the capital Damascus with Homs and Assad’s Alawite heartland on the Mediterranean.
The final rebel withdrawal from the centre of the city, known as the “capital of the revolution” when protests first erupted against Assad in 2011, would consolidate his military control ahead of a June 3 presidential election.
Assad is widely expected to be the runaway victor in the vote which his opponents have dismissed as a charade.
They say no credible election can be held in a country fractured by ongoing civil war, with swathes of territory outside government control, 6 million people displaced and another 2.5 million refugees abroad.
Under the deal which allowed the evacuation from Homs, the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim rebels also agreed to ease their siege of two northern Shi’ite towns, Nubl and al-Zahraa.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels opened the roads to allow aid into the two towns on Wednesday morning at the same time as the first buses collected the departing rebel fighters from Homs.
The fighters are expected to leave Homs in up to nine convoys, carefully synchronized with the aid delivery and the release of captives held by the rebels near Nubl and Zahraa, and the town of Kassab in Latakia province.
One activist said a Russian national and several Iranians were included among those being released by the rebels. There was no independent confirmation, but Moscow and Tehran have both supported Assad against in the three-year civil war.
More than 150,000 people have died in Syria’s civil war. Millions more have fled their homes and the government has lost control of swathes of territory across the north and east. Fighting regularly kills more than 200 people a day.
Provincial governor Talal Barazi said Wednesday’s operation would ultimately clear the whole of Homs city of gunmen and weapons, suggesting reels would also be evacuated from the suburb of Al-Waer on the city’s northwestern outskirts.
Rebels in Al-Waer and the central districts around the Old City have held out against Assad’s forces after the army drove them out of the ruins of Baba Amr in March 2012 during a ground offensive which followed weeks of shelling.
Since then the army gradually tightened its grip around the rebel areas, blocking weapons, medical supplies and food. It allowed hundreds of civilians to leave in February after lengthy U.N. mediation,
Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny; Editing by Andrew Heavens