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Syria rebels begin leaving Homs under truce deal

AFP , Wednesday 9 Dec 2015
Syrian Army forces look on as buses leave district of Waer during a truce between the government and rebels, in Homs, Syria December 9, 2015 (Reuters)

Hundreds of Syrian rebels and civilians began evacuating the last opposition-held district in the central city of Homs Wednesday under a local ceasefire deal reached with President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The deal agreed at the start December, a rare agreement between the regime and rebel forces, will leave the city once dubbed the "capital" of Syria's revolution fully under government control.

Some 2,000 rebels and their families will abandon the Waer district in Homs to travel to other opposition-held areas, after years of siege and heavy shelling.

The evacuation comes as a broad range of Syrian opposition groups, including armed factions, hold unprecedented talks in the Saudi capital on forming a united front for peace talks with Assad.

The talks follow a major diplomatic push to resolve Syria's nearly five-year civil war, and intensified foreign military action including Russia's first strikes from a submarine Tuesday.

An AFP journalist in Homs saw women and children quietly boarding white buses as the evacuation began early on Wednesday. Many appeared haggard but some smiled, waved and gave the thumbs-up from inside the buses.

More than 100 opposition fighters, some carrying light weapons, boarded five green buses further away.

Provincial Governor Talal Barazi told reporters that some 700 people -- including 400 women and children and 300 fighters -- would be evacuated from the district Wednesday, with more to follow by the end of the week.

Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the buses were to head to the northwestern province of Idlib, held by the Army of Conquest rebel alliance which includes Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front.

Under the deal, Waer's rebel forces, who range from secular fighters to jihadists including Al-Nusra militants, are to completely leave the district by the end of January.

Once the evacuation is complete, police, but not troops, will reenter the district, where some 75,000 people currently live, down from 300,000 before the conflict began.

Homs saw some of the largest protests of the early uprising against Assad in 2011, and later some of the fiercest fighting after opposition forces took up weapons in response to a government crackdown.

Regaining total control of the city is an important symbolic victory for the regime, which has lost large swathes of the surrounding province to rebels and the Islamic State jihadist group.

The United Nations has been pushing for such localised ceasefires as broader efforts have failed to end Syria's war, despite the deaths of more than 250,000 people, and millions being forced from their homes.

The biggest diplomatic push yet was launched last month in Vienna with top diplomats from 17 countries -- including key international backers and opponents of Assad -- agreeing on a roadmap to set up a transition government in six months and hold elections within 18 months.

The plan calls for negotiations between opposition representatives and the regime by January 1. Washington is hoping to host another round of international talks in New York on December 18.

The two-day meeting that began Wednesday in Riyadh marks the first time a broad range of Syrian political and armed opposition factions have come together.

Some 100 delegates aim to form a unified bloc for talks with Assad, though analysts say deep divisions will be difficult to overcome.

The fate of Assad is a key question, with some Western- and Arab-backed rebel groups insisting he must step down immediately.

Internal opposition groups disagree, as do Assad's key international backers Iran and Russia.

International concern over the conflict has grown with the emergence of ISIS as a major threat, after it seized large parts of Syria and Iraq and carried out operations abroad including last month's Paris attacks.

A US-led coalition launched air strikes against ISIS in both countries last year. Russia in September began its own intervention, though critics have accused Moscow of also seeking to prop up Assad's regime by hitting moderate rebels.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said Tuesday that Moscow's campaign had expanded beyond air strikes and missiles fired from the Caspian Sea to include cruise missiles from its Rostov-on-Don submarine in the Mediterranean.

The latest strikes hit "300 targets of different kinds" in the past three days and helped Syrian special forces recover the black box of a Russian warplane downed by Turkey last month, Shoigu said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday invited British experts to help analyse the black box.

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