Syrian rebels agree to truce; Italian hostages released

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Outgunned Syrian rebels agree to 10-day truce in last stronghold of Homs

Syrian rebels have been forced to agree to a 10-day cease-fire in a neighborhood within the central city of Homs that has become their last bastion there after two years of siege.

The rebels accepted the truce with forces loyal to President Bashar Assad to avert the devastation rained on the Old City of Homs last year, activists said. The cease-fire went into effect Thursday.

Elsewhere in Syria, two Italian aid workers abducted by an Islamist group last year were released Thursday, according to the Italian government.

Rebels abandoned Old Homs in the spring of 2014 after a punishing offensive, but those holding the populous Waer neighborhood refused to withdraw and cede the suburb beyond the Orontes River to the government, despite a blockade that cut off food and threatened to destroy homes and businesses.

Human Rights Watch warned last month, after contact with several residents of Waer, that government forces had escalated their offensive “with devastating consequences for the civilian population.”

It was unclear whether the holdouts' submission to a new cease-fire would lead to Assad's troops moving in and taking control. But the rebels have been under intensifying pressure as they are caught between the government forces to the south and west and Islamic extremist fighters who have seized the northeastern third of Syria's territory and proclaimed it part of a transnational Muslim caliphate.

Syrian opposition forces rose up against Assad four years ago, as the Arab Spring democracy movements swept the Middle East. But the government, allied with Russia and Iran, fought the moderate, Western-backed rebel factions to a standstill after a year. Assad's advances have been curbed in more recent years, in part by the influx of foreign extremists fighting for the caliphate declared by the Islamic State militant group, as well as by territorial seizures by the Nusra Front.

U.N. aid and human rights groups estimate that 220,000 people have been killed in the civil war. Millions made homeless by the fighting have fled into foreign exile or been internally displaced.

The Waer cease-fire appeared to be honored by all sides on its first day, allowing for the delivery of food and other aid for the first time since November, said Yacoub Hillo, United Nations resident coordinator for the area.

Two other aid convoys are planned in the next few days, each carrying supplies for 20,000 people, Hillo said.

"It is supposed to be three deliveries to 20,000 people per delivery. That should serve for one month for the Waer area," he said of the last rebel-held Homs suburb, which was home to 350,000 before the war. "I'm sure the needs are greater, but this is a good step in the right direction."

Baher Kayyal, head of Syrian Red Crescent, said the group had obtained government permission to begin delivering the food baskets and was at work getting the relief supplies to those residents still holding out in Waer.

The truce resulted from a meeting of two factions from the Waer area with a government delegation that agreed to the halt in hostilities "as a sign of good intent," said the opposition watchdog network Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The British-based rebel supporters said they nonetheless remain opposed to taking part in a Jan. 26 meeting in Moscow organized by the Kremlin as an attempt at negotiating an end to the conflict.

Assad has agreed that his government will participate, but he said in an interview with the Czech newspaper Literarni Noviny published Thursday that he was "realistic" about the meeting's prospects for making progress in the bitter conflict.

The release of the two aid workers was announced on the Twitter account of the Italian prime minister's office, which promised that they would "return soon to Italy."

Gretta Ramelli, 21, and Vanessa Marzullo, 20, were believed to have been kidnapped by the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo last summer. The area, along with other provinces along the Turkish-Syrian border, is under the control of armed rebel factions opposed to Assad.

A video released last month purported to show the two, clad in black Islamic garb, pleading for the Italian government to bring them home.

Kidnappings in opposition-controlled areas have become commonplace as the civil war engulfing Syria approaches its fifth year. Although rebels initially welcomed foreigners, many groups began to kidnap foreign aid workers and journalists for ransom payments that reportedly have reaped tens of millions of dollars for factions such as Al Nusra Front and Islamic State.

The Italian government did not elaborate on the circumstances surrounding the two's release. European countries have reportedly paid ransoms, or allowed private individuals to do so, for the release of their citizens.

Follow @cjwilliamslat for the latest international news 24/7.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

1:53 p.m.: This post has been updated with release of Italian aid workers.

This article was originally posted at 11:43 a.m.

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