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Siege of Homs: Evacuation of last rebel-held district in Syrian city begins

The Russian-supervised evacuation of Waer was agreed earlier this month and is expected to last several weeks

Syrian rebels and their families on the edge of the rebel-held Waer neighbourhood in Homs on 18 March (AFP)

Hundreds of rebels and civilians began leaving the last opposition-held district of Syria's Homs on Saturday under a controversial deal that will bring the whole city under government control.

The Russian-supervised evacuation of Waer was agreed earlier this month and is expected to last several weeks.

The new agreement aims to finalise implementation of a "reconciliation deal" that has already seen several phases of rebel evacuation from Waer district, but which had stalled in recent months.

Russian troops present

Russian troops and vehicles could be seen on Saturday morning just outside the Waer district as the first buses began to pull out, AFP's correspondent said.

According to the agreement, up to 100 Russian soldiers will deploy inside the neighbourhood to oversee the evacuation and ensure the safety of residents, including any who chose to stay. 

The first wave of three green buses pulled out of Waer carrying dozens of fighters, their rifles slung over their soldiers, and civilians including children. 

Between 400 and 500 people are expected to leave on Saturday, Syrian state television reported. 

Rebels will be bussed to opposition-held parts of Homs province, the town of Jarabulus on the Syrian-Turkish border or the northwest province of Idlib.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group estimates that a total of 12,000 people, including 2,500 rebels, will leave under the deal. 

Deals are controversial

Syria's government has agreed "reconciliation" deals in several rebel-held areas. It says the local agreements which grant safe passage to surrendering fighters are key to ending the country's six-year war.

But the opposition says it has been forced into such arrangements by siege and bombardment.

Three waves of rebels and their families have already quit Waer under an agreement first reached in December 2015, but the deal has stalled since then.

During the past month, government forces have stepped up its bombardment of the district, killing dozens of people, according to the Britain-based Observatory. 

And no aid has reached the area in at least four months: a UN convoy that attempted to reach Waer in February seized by gunmen who diverted the assistance to a government-held area.

Completion of the Waer agreement will bring Homs city - once known as the "capital of the revolution" - under the full control of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

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