Syrian rebels and their families began retreating from the outskirts of Homs, the last remaining opposition-held stronghold in central Syria, after a Russian-brokered evacuation deal was signed earlier this week.
The first buses carrying rebels and their families departed from the al-Waer neighborhood in western Homs early on Saturday, state-run SANA news agency reported.
Talal al-Barazi, Homs’ governor, told the media outlet that the first group of evacuees includes over 1,500 people who will be transported to the northeastern edge of Aleppo province.
The evacuation operation is being overseen by Syrian and Russian military police units, al-Barazi later told Reuters, adding that all rebels from al-Waer are due to depart within around six weeks.
“The preparations and the reality on the ground indicate that things will go well,” the governor stressed.
“We are optimistic that the full exit of armed [fighters] from this district will pave the way for other reconciliations and settlements,” he added.
Government forces have been fighting to retake the al-Waer neighborhood, home to some 75,000 people, since 2013.
After the Arab Spring broke out in 2011, the city of Homs saw massive riots against President Bashar Assad, which gradually turned violent, as peaceful demonstrations led to the rise of an armed insurgency.
Once the first batch of rebels has left the area, food and aid supplies are expected to arrive in the troubled neighborhood, al-Barrazi told AP.
Earlier this week, he that said rebels who laid down their weapons and decided to stay in al-Waer could be eligible for government amnesty, as declared earlier.
On Friday, the Russian Reconciliation Center said negotiations between the Syrian military and rebel commanders are underway in Homs, Damascus, and Hama, as well as other locations.
Once Syria’s second-largest city, Aleppo was finally completely liberated last year when rebels evacuated after a ceasefire was declared.
As the Syrian military continues their offensive against Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL), Damascus has intensified its efforts to persuade some of the rebel groups to surrender and sign reconciliation agreements.
Speaking to Chinese TV station Phoenix last week, President Assad said ceasefire deals negotiated with local rebel leaders were “the real political solutions” that could lead to a lasting peace in war-torn Syria.