Rebels begin departing from Syria's central Homs province

2018-05-08 20:43
Destroyed buildings in the old city of Homs, Syria. (Hassan Ammar, AP)

Destroyed buildings in the old city of Homs, Syria. (Hassan Ammar, AP)

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Beirut — The first convoy of buses carrying opposition fighters and civilians from a rebel enclave in central Syria reached a region controlled by Turkish troops on Monday and were awaiting permission to enter, a Syrian war monitoring group said.

The evacuations from besieged, northern areas of Homs province and small parts of Hama province are part of an agreement reached last week between insurgents and Russia for the fighters to leave the area or surrender. Russia is a close ally of the Syrian government.

The Syrian government will take control of the area after rebels leave. Fighters who elect to stay can benefit from an amnesty, but most are expected to be drafted into the army months later.

The area includes the towns of Rastan and Talbiseh, which were among the first regions to see protests against President Bashar Assad's government after the uprising began in March 2011. It is the last and largest region besieged by government forces.

Government forces have been making steady gains since Russia joined the war in 2015 on their side. Last month, government forces captured eastern suburbs of the capital, Damascus, forcing tens of thousands of people to relocate to the country's north.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said tens of thousands of fighters and civilians will leave the central region, bound for northern parts of Syria controlled by opposition fighters and Turkish troops.

The Observatory said the convoy that left central Syria late Monday is now waiting for permission to enter the region of al-Bab, which is controlled by Turkish troops and Turkey-backed opposition fighters. It added that some al-Bab residents are demonstrating to pressure Turkish authorities to allow the evacuees in.

Syrian state TV said 70 buses carrying 3 200 gunmen and their families exited Hama and Homs countryside on Monday night heading for northern Syria. It added that more groups would be evacuated in the coming days.

State news agency SANA said the rebels in the area have handed over most of their heavy weapons, including six tanks, three armored personnel carriers and mortar shells.

Syrian State TV said insurgents fired a mortar round that hit a gathering of parked buses on Tuesday near Rastan Bridge. No injuries were reported, the TV said. It said a number of buses have arrived at the bridge to enter the rebel-held area in order to evacuate insurgents to northern Syria.

In the capital Damascus, Syrian forces pressed further in their offensive against members of the Islamic State group in a small area south of the city. Government forces have been advancing in the IS-controlled neighborhood of Hajar al-Aswad as well as the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk since last month.

Last week, government forces were able to separate IS fighters in Hajar al-Aswad from those in the camp and since then they have been capturing one bloc after another.

A video from the area showed smoke billowing from Hajar al-Aswad and Yarmouk as it was being pounded from the air and the ground. A helicopter was seen flying overhead then dropping barrel bombs while rocket launchers pounded the area with missiles.

The Observatory said that since government forces launched their offensive on April 19, 162 troops and pro-government fighters and 131 IS gunmen have been killed.

The capture of Yarmouk camp, Hajar al-Aswad and other areas would bring all of Damascus under government control.

Read more on:    isis  |  syria

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