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Syria rebels in final retreat from heart of Homs

May 9, 2014 11:35 A.M. (Updated: May 10, 2014 8:31 P.M.)
HOMS, Syria (AFP) -- The last rebels were leaving the center of the battleground city of Homs, handing a symbolic victory to Syrian President Bashar Assad ahead of a controversial election.

Rebels hit back in the historic heart of Aleppo, blowing up a luxury hotel-turned-army position after tunneling under the front line which divides the main city of northern Syria.

At least 14 soldiers and pro-government militiamen were killed in the explosion and its aftermath, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Around 1,000 rebel fighters have left the Old City of Homs under the unprecedented negotiated evacuation that began Wednesday, according to figures given to AFP by provincial governor Talal Barazi.

But seven buses carrying the last 300 fighters were stopped because Islamist fighters were refusing to allow food supplies into two rebel-besieged Shiite towns in Aleppo province, the Observatory said.

Barazi said they were stopped at the northern exit from the Old City, without giving a reason.

Rami Abdel Rahman, who heads the Syrian Observatory, said Islamists were limiting entry of supplies to Zahraa and Nabol to two trucks, instead of 12 as agreed by the regime and rebels in negotiations to which they were not a party.

Barazi earlier said more than 200 fighters had been evacuated Thursday, in addition to 980 people, mostly rebels but including some women and children, bussed out of the Old City on Wednesday.

The pullout, following an army siege of nearly two years, leaves the rebels confined to a single district on the outskirts of a city that what was once a bastion of the uprising.

Barazi said negotiations were well advanced for the rebels to leave that neighborhood too in the coming weeks.

He said the fighters and some civilians evacuated with them were bussed out to the opposition-held town of Dar al-Kabira, 13 miles north of Homs.

'Come on, shoot me!'

Government troops played football on the square housing Homs's landmark clock tower, once the scene of the city's massive anti-government protests.

A soldier climbed onto the rooftop of a house and told AFP: "This is the first time I climb up here without fearing snipers."

"Come on, shoot me!" he called out to another soldier, who took a photograph of him.

It is not the first deal between the government and the rebels -- a number of ceasefires have been agreed on the outskirts of Damascus.

But it is the first time that rebel fighters have withdrawn from an area they controlled under an accord with the government.

The Syrian government allowed the remaining rebels in Homs to pull out with their personal weapons in return for the release of 40 Alawite women and children, an Iranian woman and 30 soldiers held hostage by rebels elsewhere in Syria, a rebel spokesman said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory monitoring group confirmed that all the hostages had been released by Thursday afternoon.

The deal, in negotiations overseen by the ambassador of the Syrian regime's close ally Iran, also involved the distribution of aid into Nubol and Zahraa.

'Chess game'

Abu Wissam, a rebel fighter being evacuated from the city center, bemoaned the outside interests now at play in a conflict that began as an Arab Spring-inspired protest movement.

"Now, everyone is moved like pawns in a chess game" between regional and international powers, he told AFP via the internet.

There have been many sieges imposed by both sides in the three-year-old conflict but that of the Old City of Homs has been by the far longest.

Some 2,200 people were killed as near daily bombardment reduced the area to ruins.

Insecurity in war-torn Syria is hampering the final stages of work to dismantle its chemical weapons arsenal, the UN official overseeing the task told reporters on Thursday.

The rebel pullout comes less than a month before a controversial presidential election, described as a farce by Western governments and the opposition, that is expected to return Assad to office.

In Washington, US Secretary of State John Kerry stood side-by-side with Syrian opposition chief Ahmad Jarba in a public show of support on Thursday, but made no mention of the rebels' plea for heavy weapons to help end the war.

Jarba said the vote will give Assad "a licence ... to kill his own people for many years to come."

In Aleppo, the rebel attack claimed by the massive Islamic Front alliance completely destroyed the Carlton Citadel Hotel, just across the road from the city's UNESCO-listed Citadel, which the army had been using as a frontline position.

A rebel offensive in July 2012 which saw them seize large swathes of Aleppo left the Citadel and nearby hotels -- which once thronged with foreign tourists -- on the front line of the deadly conflict.
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