Syrian rebels, families begin leaving Homs district in deal with govt

Buses drive past a Syrian army soldier to evacuate rebel fighters and their families from the besieged Waer district in the central Syrian city of Homs

Almost 1,500 people, mostly civilians, left the last opposition-held district of Homs on Saturday (March 18) under a controversial Russian-supervised deal to bring Syria's third city under full government control.

Green government buses ferried the fighters, who were carrying assault rifles, and their families from the northern al-Waer neighborhood to Homs' western entrance, where they disembarked and had some of their bags searched under the supervision of Syrian and Russian military police.

About 1,500 people will leave for the Aleppo countryside on Saturday, Homs Governor Talal Barazi has said.

More than 1,500 people are expected to be evacuated from the neighbourhood of al-Waer on Saturday, including around 500 rebels, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

After the Arab Spring broke out in 2011, the city of Homs saw massive riots against President Bashar Assad, which gradually turned violent, as peaceful demonstrations led to the rise of an armed insurgency. It followed earlier evacuation deals between rebels and government forces that were not fully implemented.

Al-Wair is home to an estimated 75,000 people and has been under siege by government forces since late 2013.

In a new deal reached last week, government and rebel representatives agreed that up to 100 Russian troops would deploy inside Waer to oversee the final phase of evacuations. Opposition fighters say that they have been coerced into such agreements by brutal sieges and bombardments.




The men, women and children, majority carrying their belongings in suitcases and plastic bags, then boarded white busses that were to take them to the northern rebel-held town of Jarablous on the border with Turkey. It has been besieged by government forces for about five months.

The wide array of mostly Sunni rebel factions includes jihadists as well as some groups supported by the United States, Turkey, and Gulf monarchies.

U.S. officials said their planes struck an al-Qaeda gathering in northern Syria on Friday, killing dozens of militants.

More groups of fighters and civilians are expected to leave the district in the next two months.

US Army Major Josh Jacques, a US Central Command spokesman, said the US did not target or strike a mosque.

He said the building that was struck was a "partially constructed community meeting hall" that Al Qaeda leaders used to gather and "as a place to educate and indoctrinate Al Qaeda fighters".

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