Hundreds of Syrian rebels began to evacuate the Old City of Homs on Wednesday under a deal that is a major strategic and symbolic victory for the government of President Bashar Assad.
Opposition forces agreed to abandon Homs’ ancient quarter after complex negotiations that yielded an accord granting the rebels safe passage out of the area. As part of the deal, the opposition also agreed to release some captives elsewhere in Syria and ease sieges on a pair of pro-government towns in the north.
Video posted online by opposition activists showed rebel fighters, some with their faces covered, walking toward a pair of green buses that were to transport them from the Old City to opposition-held territory north of Homs.
Under the terms of the accord, said one knowledgeable individual, rebels were allowed to leave with their personal belongings and a single weapon, usually an AK-47 rifle. Heavy weaponry had to be abandoned.
By some estimates, about 1,200 fighters remained in the Old City, along with a much smaller number of civilians. All the gunmen were expected to leave, officials said.
The United Nations helped put the deal into effect, and its personnel were at the scene in the Old City on Wednesday.
The move effectively returns control of Syria’s third-largest city -- once dubbed the “capital” of the uprising -- to the government, though the opposition still controls one major residential district, Waer. Negotiations are proceeding to work a similar deal in the Waer neighborhood, home to more than 200,000 people, officials said.
Government officials want to return as much of a sense of normalcy as is possible in advance of national elections scheduled for June 3. Assad is widely expected to win a third seven-year term. Backers of the armed opposition call the election a farce.
Apart from its symbolic significance as a focal point of the uprising, Homs sits at a strategic point in the heart of Syria. Sprawling Homs province is the site of the major routes leading south to Damascus, the capital, north to the provinces of Hama and Aleppo, and west to the Mediterranean coast, a pro-government bastion.
Both sides have endured massive losses as the government battled to regain control of neighborhoods in Homs city and strategic towns throughout the embattled province. The more than three-year war has devastated the once-bustling city, leaving many of its neighborhoods in rubble and forcing much of its population to flee or relocate to relatively secure districts.
Rebels had been ensconced inside the narrow streets and alleys of the Old City for more than two years. For much of that time, the area was encircled by government forces. Food and medical care have long been in short supply.
In February, more than 1,400 people were evacuated from the Old City under a United Nations-backed plan.
Some of the hundreds of ex-fighters who left then said they were tired of the hardships and disheartened that the war had dragged on for so long. Many acknowledged having lost faith in the battle.
“I want peace,” said one bearded rebel in his 20s who was on crutches and had his right leg taped because of a severe wound. “This is why I came out.”
Much of the Old City has been destroyed by shelling and gunfire. Viewed from a distance, the Old City now presents a jagged skyline of blown-out apartment blocs blackened by shell fire.
With its volatile sectarian mix, Homs had long been at the heart of the uprising against Assad’s rule.
Many members of the majority Sunni Muslim population resented what they considered preferential treatment for Alawites, the minority Muslim sect whose members include Assad and many high-ranking members of the security services. Simmering sectarian animosities broke into open hostilities once the war started in mid-2011. Both sides have reported sectarian-fueled massacres. Homs’ significant Christian minority has generally been seen as pro-government.
As part of the evacuation deal, rebels agreed to free a publicly unspecified number of prisoners in the northern Aleppo and Latakia provinces. State media on Wednesday reported that the release of 15 “abducted citizens” in Aleppo who had been seized by “armed terrorist groups,” the official term for armed rebels.
Also under the accord, the opposition vowed to allow humanitarian aid into two northern towns, Nubul and Zahraa, both predominantly Shiite Muslim areas largely loyal to Assad’s government. But there were reports that the aid did not get through Wednesday.
At the end of the day, Homs Gov. Talal Barazi told state television that a total of 980 people had been evacuated from the Old City, including injured sent to area hospitals.
As part of the accord, the governor said, the opposition released 70 kidnapping victims in Aleppo and Latakia provinces and other areas. Those freed include five children and 17 women.
The Old City would be declared “secure” Thursday, Barazi said, after a military sweep to dismantle explosives and mines.
Special correspondent Nabih Bulos in Los Angeles contributed to this report.