Homs evacuation begins as hundreds of civilians and rebels leave Syrian city
Hundreds of Syrian civilians and rebels have begun pulling out of the last opposition-held neighbourhood of the city of Homs.
The evacuation is 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 at least 272 gunmen and 447 civilians left the district on Wednesday in an evacuation process that was presided over by the United Nations.
Once the evacuation is completed, the city of Homs, once dubbed as "the capital of the revolution", will fully return to government control.
UN and Red Crescent officials were on hand to oversee implementation of the deal, which saw the gunmen transported to areas further north in Hama and Idlib province. They 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 Assad.
Several wounded civilians were also loaded into ambulances waiting just outside the district.
A convoy of at least 10 white buses carrying civilians and seven green buses carrying gunmen left Waer. A UN vehicle and Syrian army truck mounted with a machine gun drove in between each bus carrying civilians, while UN and Red Crescent vehicles surrounded each bus carrying rebel fighters.
"With this agreement, Homs will now be a safe place free of weapons and gunmen," said Mr Barazzi.
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.
The Waer 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.
The international community is making its most serious push yet for a ceasefire and peace talks to end the Syrian conflict that began in 2011. Many hope that such local deals can be replicated across Syria to create pockets of peace and a climate conducive to talks leading up to a transitional government.