Hundreds of rebels, their families and civilians began leaving the last opposition-held district of the Syrian city of Homs on Saturday under a controversial deal that will bring the whole city under regime control.
Between 10,000 and 15,000 rebels and civilians would evacuate from Waer in batches over the coming weeks under the deal which was agreed earlier this month, according to opposition activists in al-Waer and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Once completed, it would mark the biggest evacuation during the war out of one Syrian district, which is home to about 40,000 civilians and more than 2,500 fighters, the monitoring group said.
Homs governor Talal Barazi told Reuters he expected around 1,500 people, including at least 400 fighters, to depart on Saturday for rebel-held areas northeast of Aleppo city.
Along with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), Russian and Syrian forces were overseeing the evacuation, which would take about six weeks, he said.
The new agreement aims to finalize implementation of a “reconciliation deal” that has already seen several phases of rebel evacuation from Waer district, but which had stalled in recent months.
Russian troops and vehicles could be seen on Saturday morning just outside Waer as the first buses began to pull out, AFP’s correspondent said.
According to the agreement, up to 100 Russian soldiers will deploy inside the neighborhood to oversee the evacuation and ensure the safety of residents, including any who chose to stay.
The first wave of three green buses pulled out of Waer carrying dozens of fighters, their rifles slung over their soldiers, and civilians including children.
Rebels will be bussed to opposition-held parts of Homs province, the town of Jarabulus on the Syrian-Turkish border or the northwest province of Idlib.
Syria’s regime has agreed “reconciliation” deals in several rebel-held areas, and touts the local agreements that grant safe passage to surrendering fighters as key to ending the country’s war.
But the opposition says it is forced into such deals by siege and bombardment.
Completion of the Waer agreement will bring Homs city — an early center of the popular uprising against the Syrian regime — under the full control of Bashar al-Assad.