Rebels and their families began leaving their last bastion in the Syrian city of Homs on Saturday, state media and a witness said, under a Russian-backed deal with the government expected to be among the largest evacuations of its kind.
The first few buses drove out of Al Waer district in Homs, which was an early centre of the popular uprising against Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.
Between 10,000 and 15,000 rebels and civilians would evacuate in batches over the coming weeks under the deal, according to opposition activists in Al Waer and a war monitor.
The agreement underlines Assad’s upper hand in the war, as more rebel fighters opt to leave areas they have defended for years in deals that amount to negotiated withdrawals to other parts of the country.
The Syrian government has described such deals as a “workable model” that brings the country closer to peace after six years of conflict. But the opposition decries them as a tactic of forcibly displacing people who oppose Assad after years of bombardment and siege.
Homs Governor Talal Barazi said he expected around 1,500 people, including at least 400 fighters, to depart on Saturday for rebel-held areas northeast of Aleppo city.
Along with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), Russian and Syrian forces were overseeing the evacuation, which would take about six weeks, he said.
“The preparations and the reality on the ground indicate that things will go well,” Barazi said.
“We are optimistic that the full exit of armed (rebels) from this district will pave the way for other reconciliations and settlements,” he added.
The government has increasingly tried to press besieged rebel areas to surrender and accept what it calls reconciliation agreements that involve fighters departing for northern Syria.
In an interview with Chinese TV station Phoenix last week, Assad said deals brokered locally with rebels were “the real political solutions”. He added that he had not expected anything from Geneva, where UN-led peace talks ended this month with no breakthrough.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said the buses would go to the Jarablus area in the north, held by Turkey-backed rebels.
Once completed, it would mark the biggest evacuation during the war out of one Syrian district, which is home to about 40,000 civilians and more than 2,500 fighters, the monitoring group said.