Talks continue over rebel withdrawal from Syria's Homs
AFP, Saturday 3 May 2014

Talks for rebels to withdraw from a handful of besieged neighbourhoods in Syria's Homs city have entered their final phase, Governor Talal al-Barazi told AFP on Saturday.

Homs was dubbed the "capital of the revolution" at the start of the 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, and a pull-out would mean the regime has regained complete control of it after a two-year siege.

Retaking the city would constitute a victory for the regime, a month ahead of a presidential election that Assad is expected to win.

A ceasefire began on Friday, as a first step toward implementing a deal between the two sides.

But talks are sensitive, because some rebel brigades and the jihadist Al-Nusra Front oppose the evacuation, Barazi told AFP.

"The ceasefire is still in place, and I hope we will reach the end of the negotiations. Talks to rid the city of arms and of armed men have advanced a lot. They are ongoing and we are near the end."

Homs is Syria's third city and is strategically located in the heart of the country.

Only a handful of neighbourhoods surrounding the historic and now destroyed Old City remain in rebel hands, after a series of massive army offensives starting with the takeover of Baba Amr in March 2012.

The talks involved Barazi, other representatives of the regime, four representatives of pro-revolt Waer neighbourhood and three from the besieged Old City.

"The deal covers the Old City and Waer. It will be applied first in the Old City, then in Waer. The goal is to reach a peaceful solution that brings back security and government institutions," Barazi said.

The vast majority of some 1,400 people still trapped in the Old City are fighters, but Waer is home to hundreds of thousands of civilians, many of them displaced from fallen rebel bastions.

A string of towns, also besieged, remain in rebel control in the Homs provincial countryside, to which some of the fighters want to be evacuated, according to Barazi.