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Syria's third-largest city, Homs, clear of opposition

Syria's third-largest city, Homs, clear of opposition
Syrians gather around a Russian soldier as opposition fighters and their families prepare to be evacuated from the the last opposition-held district in the central city of Homs on May 21, 2017. (AFP/Getty Images)

Syria's government announced Sunday that the country's third-largest city, Homs — once deemed the capital of the revolt against President Bashar Assad — had been cleared of armed opposition for the first time in more than five years. The announcement follows the completion of the evacuation of the last rebel-held neighborhood.

Besieged for four years, Waer was the last opposition-controlled district in Homs. The evacuation of armed fighters, their families and opposition activists began several weeks ago, following a deal that in effect surrenders the district after the tightening siege coupled with a military campaign.

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Similar deals have been reached recently, bringing a number of neighborhoods near the Syrian capital, Damascus, as well as the country's former commercial center and largest city, Aleppo, back to government control.

It is a major shift from a few years ago, when the armed opposition was on the rise, threatening the capital and holding on to more than half of Aleppo.

Syrian television broadcast from inside Waer, showing children and men gathering around government-sponsored trucks distributing bread and goods.

Homs has been at least partially controlled by the rebels since the early days of the revolt that broke out in 2011. But government forces recaptured one Homs neighborhood after the other, finally isolating the rebels in Waer.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 20,000 people were evacuated from Waer to the rebel-held areas in the country's north over the last several weeks.

"It is a great achievement today," Homs Gov. Talal Barazi told the Syrian TV channel Al Ikhbariya from Waer. He said state institutions will begin their return to Waer immediately.

Rebels still control areas north of Homs while the government is on the offensive against Islamic State militants to the south.

Syria's myriad opposition groups and armed rebels are now concentrated in the rebel-held northern province of Idlib, and in rural Aleppo along the border with Turkey. Islamic State militants still hold territory in eastern and northeastern Syria and south of Homs.

On Sunday, a twin explosion, believed to be caused by a suicide attack, in Idlib killed at least 14 members of a powerful ultraconservative insurgent group, Syria opposition activists said.

It was unclear who was behind the attack. Ahrar al Sham, the targeted group, blamed Islamic State for the attack, saying the assailant arrived in the village of Tal Touqan, to the east of the provincial capital, where the group has a center. Ahrar al Sham said the attacker blew himself and his motorcycle up amid the fighters, killing and wounding dozens.

The opposition-operated Baladi News Network quoted a witness as saying at least 15 people were killed in the attack. The Syrian Observatory group said 14 were killed, including a local leader, in the twin blasts.

Northern Idlib is an opposition stronghold, but an Al Qaeda-linked group has the most sway there. The group has also been at odds with Ahrar al Sham, which was targeted in the attack.

Clashes between the two groups this year were triggered by a new push for rebels to take part in Russia-backed talks to bring about a cease-fire. The talks also called for rebel groups to battle the Al Qaeda-linked group, which labeled the negotiations as treason. But the two groups are essentially fighting for control over Idlib, the one province in Syria that is totally under opposition control and has a border with the outside world, through Turkey.

The battles that raged in February were considered the worst infighting in years. But the violence has largely subsided as each group keeps control of separate parts of the province.

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