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 Old City and surrounding areas on buses taking them to opposition territory in northern Homs province.

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 and marks a symbolic defeat for rebels seeking his ouster.

The evacuation began at around 10 am (0700GMT), 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 with black or white scarves, 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, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said around 400 of the approximately 1,200 people believed to be in the Old City had left.

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.

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.”

The deal between the regime and rebels, mediated by Iran’s ambassador to Syria, was reached as part of an exchange for 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, all of them fighters”, would be handed over.

By late Wednesday afternoon, 15 had already been transferred, said the source, speaking to AFP via the Internet on condition of anonymity. He also said vehicles carrying aid had started to enter Nubol and Zahraa.

Once the Homs operation is complete, the evacuated areas are to be turned over to the government, which is expected to send in forces to sweep for mines and explosives.

The regime will then have control of all but one major area of Homs city.

While the area being reclaimed by the government is relatively small, it retains huge symbolic importance for the opposition.

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 opposition 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, which will be the only remaining opposition area left in Homs city after the Old City operation.

Negotiations are under way for a similar deal to be implemented in Waer, according to government and opposition officials.