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Syria reports accord on truce, rebel withdrawal in Homs; activists deny full pullout

Syria reports accord on truce, rebel withdrawal in Homs; activists deny full pullout
A rebel fighter rests during clashes with pro-government forces in the Syrian province of Homs in October. (Mahmoud Taha / AFP/Getty Images)

Syrian government officials on Tuesday announced a cease-fire in Homs leading to the evacuation of all rebels from their last remaining bastion in the ravaged city.

However, two pro-opposition activists denied that the deal meant rebels would completely abandon the area.

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Provincial Gov. Talal Barazi, in comments to the official Syrian Arab News Agency, said rebels would leave the Waer neighborhood west of Homs beginning next week as part of a deal that would also "pave the way for the return of all state institutions" to the area.

"The first phase begins with the exit of a batch of the extremist fighters, along with some of their families, from the neighborhood," Barazi said. He said the accord was the start of a reconciliation process that would allow surrendering militants to "return to their normal lives and participate in building the homeland and protecting it."

However, an opposition activist and photographer in Waer denied that rebel forces would totally abandon the neighborhood.

"The truce does not stipulate the presence" of pro-government personnel in the area, Mohannad Hammoud wrote on Twitter on Tuesday, insisting that the "situation of the battlefronts" would stay the same.

"The revolutionaries of the neighborhood are the ones who will manage its internal affairs, and the revolutionary character will remain the dominant one there," he said.

Hammoud said the rebels would give up some of their heavy weapons in exchange for the release of detainees and information on those who were missing.

Osama Abu Zaid, an activist with the pro-opposition Homs Media Center, also confirmed that a verbal agreement for a cease-fire had been reached. However, he said that the only fighters who would be evacuated were those who could not guarantee they would adhere to the truce.

The deal, which officials said was a result of three months of negotiations between the government and rebels, reportedly will include a cease-fire, the release of detainees, the entry of humanitarian and medical assistance to the area and efforts to rebuild infrastructure.

An estimated 75,000 people remain in Waer, a modern suburb of Homs that has been besieged by government forces for more than 2 1/2 years.

Lebanese broadcaster Al Mayadeen, a supporter of the Syrian government, reported that the militants' evacuation will occur in phases over a 60-day period.

Mayadeen said about 3,000 fighters from hard-line Islamist groups, including the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, will be transported to Hama and Idlib provinces in northern Syria, which remains mostly in rebel hands.

According to Mayadeen, the United Nations will play a supervisory role in the agreement, which did not involve mediation efforts by regional countries.

U.N. officials could not be reached for comment, though Syrian officials said the deal was completed in the presence of U.N. personnel, including humanitarian coordinator Yacoub El Hillo. Abu Zaid said Khawlah Matar, a representative of U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, was involved in the talks.

The deal echoes a similar U.N.-brokered arrangement reached in May that saw the rebels withdraw from Homs' Old City quarter, an elegant neighborhood housing both militant groups and civilians that was all but decimated in the fighting. State authorities have worked to rehabilitate the Old City, and some residents have returned.

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Homs was one of the first cities to rise up against Syrian President Bashar Assad as mostly peaceful protests against his rule broke out in March 2011. When the uprising careened into violence, the city became home to dozens of rebel factions and was dubbed "the cradle of the revolution" by the opposition.

The Syrian civil war has killed an estimated 250,000 people and ravaged much of the country's infrastructure. It has spurred a refugee crisis, with more than a third of Syria's 24 million people displaced and spilling over into neighboring countries as well as Europe.

The chaos also saw the rise of the militant group Islamic State, which has overrun large swaths of the desert areas straddling Iraq and Syria.

The pullout from Homs would reflect a wider government strategy to secure and push militants away from the country's vital areas.

Pro-government sources reported this week the arrival of additional Russian forces, including troops and air force units, to the Shayraat airbase, 20 miles southeast of Homs.

In October, pro-government forces backed by Russian warplanes launched multiple offensives to dislodge the rebels from Hama and Idlib and regain control of the strategic highway connecting the Syrian capital, Damascus, to government-held areas of the northern city of Aleppo.

Bulos is a special correspondent.

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