Syrian rebels begin leaving last stronghold in city of Homs
'With this agreement, Homs will now be a safe place free of weapons and gunmen'
Hundreds of Syrian civilians and rebels began pulling out of the last opposition-held neighbourhood of the city of Homs on Wednesday as part of a local deal with government forces that would return the entire central city to government control.
A few thousand insurgents have been holed up in Waer district, which government forces had blockaded for nearly three years, only sporadically allowing in food.
The governor of Homs, Talal Barazzi, told The Associated Press on the outskirts of Waer that 272 gunmen and 447 civilians left the district on Wednesday in an evacuation process that was presided over by the United Nations.
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Once the evacuation is completed, the city of Homs, once dubbed as "the capital of the revolution," will fully return to government control.
The deal is similar to one struck in May 2014 in Homs' Old City. There, the government assumed control of the quarter after about 2,000 rebels were granted safe passage to opposition areas north of Homs. The area was destroyed and thousands of civilians were killed or forced to flee, and rebels surrendered only after they were starved and outgunned.
Still, officials hope that such local deals can be replicated across Syria to create pockets of peace and a climate conducive to peace talks. The international community is making its most serious push yet for a cease-fire and negotiations to end the Syrian conflict that began in 2011.
In Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, Syrian opposition groups and rebel factions opened a meeting on Wednesday with the aim of forming a unified front ahead of the proposed peace talks with representatives of Assad's government.
A peace plan agreed to last month by 20 nations meeting in Vienna set a Jan. 1 deadline for the start of negotiations between Assad's government and opposition groups.
UN and Red Crescent officials were on hand on the outskirts of Waer Wednesday to oversee implementation of the deal, which saw the gunmen and some of their families transported to areas further north in Hama and Idlib province. The insurgents included members of the al-Qaida branch in Syria, the Nusra Front, and an array of extremist and more moderate rebels fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad.
Also, several wounded civilians were loaded into ambulances waiting just outside the district.
Journalists were not allowed to approach the civilians and gunmen as they left Waer. An Associated Press crew saw gunmen getting into buses, their faces covered with scarves to avoid identification. The bus windows were covered with curtains, but several of the gunmen, some of them with light beards, could be seen peeking from behind them. Several gave the thumbs-up sign.
In one of the blue civilian buses, a man grinned and waved from his window seat, while a little girl in the seat behind waved. At least one person with a missing leg was seen walking on crutches and assisted by paramedics into a waiting bus.
The convoy of at least 10 white buses carrying civilians and seven green buses carrying gunmen then left Waer. A UN vehicle and Syrian army pickup truck mounted with a machine-gun drove in between each bus carrying civilians, while UN and Red Crescent vehicles bracketed each bus carrying rebel fighters.
"With this agreement, Homs will now be a safe place free of weapons and gunmen," said Barazzi, the Homs governor.
The truce deal also stipulates that the government in Damascus release an unspecified number of prisoners from Syrian jails, in addition to the release of some civilians and militants who were kidnapped by the gunmen in Waer.
Meanwhile, Turkey's prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu accused Russia of attempting "ethnic cleansing" through its air campaign in northern Syria.
He told a group of foreign reporters in Istanbul on Wednesday that Russia's operations have targeted Turkmen and Sunni communities around the Latakia region.
Davutoglu also renewed a call for the creation of a safe zone in Syria "so that new waves [of refugees] will not come."
Turkish-Russian tensions have escalated since Turkey downed a Russian warplane near the Syrian border last month. Turkey says the fighter jet violated its airspace ignoring repeated warnings. Russia denies the claim.