Syria rebels evacuate 'capital of revolution' Homs

The evacuation of rebel-held parts of Syria's Homs began Wednesday under an unprecedented deal which hands back control to the government weeks before the presidential election.

After nearly two years of government siege, weary civilians and rebel forces made their way out of the shelled-out ruins of the Old City and surrounding areas on buses taking them to opposition-held territory to the north.

The deal effectively turns over the city once dubbed the "capital of the revolution" to government control ahead of a June 3 election expected to return President Bashar al-Assad to office.

The evacuation began at around 10 am (0700 GMT), with three buses carrying civilians and fighters, some of them wounded, departing from the devastated Old City.

Videos posted online by opposition activists showed a group of fighters, some with their faces covered, walking in a line towards green buses.

They carried backpacks and light weapons as they boarded the buses, under the gaze of regime police and accompanied by a white UN car.

By late afternoon around 400 of the approximately 1,200 people believed to be in the Old City had left, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.

Governor Talal al-Barazi told AFP a third and possibly a fourth convoy were set to leave the city before nightfall, with the operation continuing Thursday morning.

State television meanwhile quoted Assad as saying: "The state supports processes of national reconciliation in all regions because it wants to stop the bloodbath."

Rebels and activists struck a more defiant tone. "So long as we are alive, we will continue to fight it," activist Abu Bilal told AFP as he prepared to leave the Old City.

- 'Tearful' departure -

The evacuees are being transferred to the rebel-held town of Dar al-Kebira, 20 kilometres (12 miles) from Homs.

Wael, an activist in the northern Homs province village of Termaaleh, told AFP he had received some of the evacuees.

"I asked one of my friends, who is now resting in my house, and he said to me that he felt hungry, and in pain and tearful over leaving Homs," he said.

"He said he felt his soul being pulled out of his body as he left Homs."

Activists distributed photographs showing fighters weeping, and a man kneeling down and kissing the ground before departing.

The Observatory's Rami Abdel Rahman said the withdrawal was "a propaganda victory for the regime, because Homs holds a symbolic place in the Syrian revolution."

He also told AFP "the resistance (by Homs' rebels) was legendary, despite two years of siege, and in spite of this, the international community did nothing."

The evacuation deal, mediated by Iran's ambassador to Syria, includes the release of a number of hostages being held by opposition fighters in the northern city of Aleppo.

Under the agreement, fighters will also allow aid into two Shiite majority towns in Aleppo province, Nubol and Zahraa, where some 45,000 people are under rebel siege.

A rebel spokesman in Aleppo said 36 hostages, including "11 Iranians, some Lebanese, and the rest Syrians" would be handed over.

By late Wednesday afternoon, 15 had already been transferred, said the source.

He also said vehicles carrying aid had started to enter Nubol and Zahraa.

- Homs returns to government -

Once the Homs operation is complete, the government will control all but one major area of the city.

At the start of Syria's uprising in March 2011, Homs came to be known as the "capital of the revolution" because of its massive anti-regime protests.

And after the rebels took up arms in response to a brutal government crackdown, the city gained iconic status among the opposition for resisting multiple offensives.

During a nearly two-year government blockade, which left around 3,000 people trapped, food and medical supplies dwindled, leaving residents to survive on little more than herbs in the final months of the blockade.

In February, a UN-Red Crescent operation successfully evacuated around 1,400 people and delivered limited aid to the besieged areas.

But hundreds of fighters and wounded people unable to make it to evacuation points were left behind, and government forces launched a fresh assault last month.

Many of those evacuated in February moved to the rebel-held Waer district.

Negotiations are underway for a similar deal to be implemented there, according to government and opposition officials.