Homs ceasefire deal could allow Syrian rebels to leave city
HOMS, Syria // Syria’s government and rebels agreed to a ceasefire on Friday in the battleground city of Homs that would allow hundreds of fighters holed up in its old quarters to evacuate, a move that would surrender almost total control of the city once known as the “capital of the revolution” to President Bashar Al Assad’s forces.
If the rebel fighters do leave, the capture of Homs, Syria’s third largest city, would be a significant victory for Mr Al Assad ahead of presidential elections set for June 3.
The 48-hour ceasefire deal, reported by opposition activists and a pro-government TV station, came after weeks of unprecedented shelling of rebel-held districts by government forces.
Homs was unusually quiet on Friday with no shots fired from either side, suggesting the ceasefire had taken effect.
Mr Al Assad’s forces, backed by fighters from Lebanon’s militant Hizbollah group and Iraqi Shiite gunmen, have pushed back the mainly Sunni Muslim rebels and foreign fighters from around Damascus and central Syria over the past year.
Hundreds of civilians were evacuated from central Homs in early February during a humanitarian ceasefire overseen by the United Nations and Red Crescent. Food and medicines were also allowed into the besieged area.
Many rebel fighters stayed on. But outgunned and surrounded, they have little prospect of holding out in the long term.
Hizbollah’s Al Manar television channel said fighting stopped at around noon when the ceasefire came into effect, and that rebel fighters would be allowed to head north out of the centre of the city.
“The agreement stipulates a ceasefire and withdrawal of Islamist and other fighters and brigades from the besieged districts of Homs towards northern rural Homs province,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.
A Homs-based opposition activist said it was a bitter moment for the rebels, who have been barricaded in 13 neighbourhoods around Homs’ historical centre.
“This isn’t what we wanted, but it’s all we could get,” said Beibars Tilawi. “The regime wanted to take control of the heart of the revolution.” Evacuations may start on Saturday, he said.
Meanwhile, in Hama province, further north, 20 people, including 12 children were killed in two suicide bombings targeting towns that are majority Alawite, the religious community to which Mr Al Assad belongs.
The attacks follow a double car bombing killed 100 people in an Alawite district of Homs on Tuesday.
This week also saw 33 civilians killed on Thursday when government aircraft bombed a popular market in a rebel-held district in the main northern city of Aleppo, the country’s largest city and another key battleground.
Homs, 130 kilometres north of Damascus, is particularly important because it links the capital with Aleppo.
Residents of Homs were among the first to rise against Mr Al Assad’s rule three years ago, earning it the nickname of the “capital of the revolution”. After waves of anti-Assad protests by its residents, rebels seized control of much of the city and Homs quickly became the focus of the worst violence of the uprising, now in its fourth year.
Blocks of Homs have been blasted to rubble in the gruelling battles as regime forces fought to wrest it back. For more than a year, government troops have blockaded rebels inside a string of districts spread over 13km, causing widespread hunger and weakening the fighters.
Heavy airstrikes and artillery bombardment of rebel-held areas intensified in past weeks, as government troops won other victories further south near Damascus and the Lebanon border, hurting supply lines. Rebels outside Homs did not come to the aid of the fighters within, and in the past few months hundreds of fighters surrendered to pro-Assad forces, activists said.
Mr Tilawi, the Homs-based activist, said the remaining fighters would leave in groups, beginning from Saturday. They will be taken to rebel-held provincial towns north of Homs. He estimated at least 1,000 rebels and activists had to be evacuated. The rebels belonged to all factions, including the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, he said.
He and other activists cautioned that the deal was extremely fragile.
“We don’t trust the regime. If there’s any shooting or traps set, the whole thing will fall apart,” he said. “We are going to try get out the first group of fighters and see.”
* Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse
Published: May 2, 2014 04:00 AM