Hundreds of rebels and their families left their last bastion in Syria’s Homs city on Monday,as part of an ongoing evacuation expected to be among the largest of its kind under a Russian-backed deal with the regime, state media and a monitor said.
Heavy fighting between rebel groups and regime forces further north in Hama province over the weekend had delayed their departure from the city’s al-Waer district, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The regime has denied that the Homs deal — and other similar voluntary displacements in besieged areas in Syria over the past year — forces resident to leave and effectively surrender their territory.
But some opposition activists have criticized the agreement, saying it aims to displace 12,000 al-Waer residents, including 2,500 fighters. The Observatory has called the evacuees “internally displaced” people.
The evacuation began last week with the Syrian regime shuttling hundreds of people from the district in Homs, which was an early center of the 2011 uprising that spiraled into war. Between 10,000-15,000 rebels and civilians were expected to leave in weekly batches, the Observatory and opposition activists have said.
Although rebels launched their biggest offensive in months last week, they have been on the back foot in Syria since Russia intervened on the side of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the autumn of 2015.
Over the past year, the regime has accelerated its drive to push rebel-held pockets to surrender under evacuation deals similar to the one in force in Homs.
Homs governor Talal Barazi said he expected nearly 1,600 people to depart on Monday for areas held by Turkey-backed rebels north of Aleppo.
“We will complete this before sunset,” he told Syrian state television, which reported that several hundred people had left so far, including more than 250 rebels.
Russian and Syrian forces were overseeing the process, which would take about six weeks in total, Barazi added.
The Observatory has said that about 40,000 civilians and more than 2,500 fighters live in besieged al-Waer.
Elsewhere in Syria, US-backed opposition forces on Sunday captured a strategically important air base from ISIS militants in the northern province of Raqqa in a major victory since the United States airlifted the forces behind enemy lines last week.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces announced they had captured the Tabqa air base, 45 kilometers (28 miles) west of Raqqa, the Islamic State group’s de facto capital in Syria.
The US, which has provided substantial air and ground support to the SDF, ferried hundreds of SDF forces, as well as US military advisers and US artillery, behind ISIS lines earlier this week.