Hundreds of rebels and civilians began leaving the last opposition-held district of Syria's Homs Saturday under a controversial deal that will bring the whole city under government control.
The first convoy of rebel fighters from al-Waer, Homs, arrived in opposition-controlled areas in north Syria in the early hours of Sunday, March 19, according to opposition reports.
Homs Governor Talal Barazi said he expected 1,500 people, including at least 400 rebels, to depart on March 18 for opposition-held areas northeast of Aleppo.
Known as "reconciliation agreements", this is one of the Syrian government's local pacts that allow surrendering civilians and fighters to evacuate to other rebel-held regions.
Homs became a key battleground of the Syrian uprising after residents embraced the call to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad in 2011 and drove security forces out of much of the city the following year.
Rebels and civilians have poured into Idlib at an accelerating rate over the previous year, bussed out of other parts of western Syria that the government and allied forces recaptured from rebels.
Al-Wair is home to an estimated 75,000 people and has been under siege by government forces since late 2013.
"These lies are a desperate attempt aimed at sabotaging the reconciliation agreement of al-Waer neighborhood in particular and the process of successive reconciliations in general", said al-Barazi.
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Along with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), Russian and Syrian forces were overseeing the evacuation, which would take about six weeks, Barazi added.
Three waves of rebels and their families left Waer under an agreement reached in December 2015, but subsequent evacuations stalled.
Under the agreement, evacuees will be bussed to opposition-held parts of Homs province, the rebel-held town of Jarabulus on the Syrian-Turkish border or the northwestern province of Idlib.
But rebels say they are forced into such deals by siege and bombardment, and the United Nations has sharply criticised them.
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.
Syrian state television said that under the agreement, fighters could stay in al-Waer if they handed over their weapons and settled their affairs with the government. Hundreds of rebels have previously left al-Wair under its terms, but implementation of the agreement had stalled in recent months.
Rebel groups have been on the back foot in Syria, following Russia's intervention in the war on Bashar al-Assad's side, bringing its air power to bear in support of his army and its Iranian and Shi'ite militia allies.
The wide array of mosty Sunni rebel factions includes some jihadists as well as some groups supported by the US, Turkey and Gulf states.