DAMASCUS - Rebels said Sunday they struck a deal to withdraw from the army-besieged heart of Homs city, as government forces advanced on a strategic town near the Syrian capital, a month before elections.
The deal over the Old City of Homs, under total blockade since June 2012, will see some 2,250 people, mostly fighters, evacuate the flashpoint city in central Syria. Rebels will head to opposition-held areas in the north of Homs province, handing over control to the army, opposition sources told AFP.
The deal brought together - for the first time - representatives of President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces, the rebels and Damascus backer Iran. Homs was dubbed the ‘capital of the revolution’ at the start of the anti-Assad uprising in 2011, and it has seen some of the heaviest violence in Syria’s war. According to the opposition, the deal includes the exchange of an unknown number of Iranian and Lebanese prisoners currently held by the Islamic Front, Syria’s largest rebel alliance.
‘An agreement occurred between representatives of the rebels and the chiefs of security, in the presence of the Iranian ambassador, for the pullout of fighters from the Old City,’ said rebel negotiator Abul Hareth al-Khalidi. He said the talk had now moved onto the implementation phase. Also under the deal, a copy of which was obtained by AFP, relief will be allowed into two Shiite, pro-regime towns in the northern province of Aleppo that are under siege by rebels.
The text specifies that the evacuees will be escorted by UN and Iranian embassy representatives, as ‘guarantors’ of their safety.
But regime representatives said it was an ‘arrangement’ rather than a deal. ‘There is no deal, there is an arrangement and reconciliations that should lead to the handing over of the city, stripped empty of weapons and of armed men,’ said Homs governor Talal al-Barazi.
‘On the ground there is nothing yet,’ he said. The main opposition National Coalition, for its part, issued a statement in praise of ‘the heroic actions of the revolutionaries’ in Homs. The group also called on the United Nations ‘to fulfil its duty and to ensure the regime honours the truce’ which began on Friday. An activist from Homs told AFP: ‘Today, the modus operandi of the withdrawal was put in place. But there will be fear from both sides until the exit takes place.’