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Syria rebels surrender strongholds in Homs

Thursday - 5/8/2014, 4:12am  ET

FILE - In this file photo released on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012 by the anti-government activist group Homs City Union of The Syrian Revolution, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, Syrian citizens walk in a destroyed street that was attacked by Syrian warplanes, at Abu al–Hol street in Homs province, Syria. Exhausted and worn out from a year-long siege, hundreds of Syrian rebels on Wednesday, May 7, 2014, left their last remaining bastions in the heart of Homs under a ceasefire deal with government forces. (AP Photo/Homs City Union of The Syrian Revolution, File)

BASSEM MROUE
Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) -- Carrying their rifles and small bags of belongings, hundreds of exhausted Syrian rebels withdrew Wednesday from their last remaining strongholds in the heart of Homs, surrendering to President Bashar Assad a bloodstained city that was once the center of the revolt against him.

For Assad, it is a powerful victory ahead of presidential elections. For the rebels, the dramatic exit after two years of enduring grueling assaults and siege captures their sense of abandonment amid world reluctance to help shift the balance of power on the ground.

"We ate grass and leaves until there was nothing left for us to eat," said opposition activist Abu Yassin al-Homsi, who was preparing to leave with the rebels later Wednesday. "We kept urging the international community to lift the siege but there was no response," he added.

The exit of some 1,200 fighters and civilians marks a de-facto end of the rebellion in the war shattered city, which was one of the first places to rise up against Assad's rule, earning its nickname as "the capital of the revolution."

Gaining virtually full control of Syria's third largest city is a major win for Assad on multiple levels. Militarily, it solidifies the government hold on a swath of territory in central Syria, linking the capital Damascus with government strongholds along the coast and giving a staging ground to advance against rebel territory further north.

Politically, gains on the ground boost Assad's hold on power as he seeks to add a further claim of legitimacy in presidential elections set for June 3, which Western powers and the opposition have dismissed as a farce.

"For those who want to believe that the regime is winning, it's a powerful symbolic confirmation of that," said Peter Harling, a Middle East expert at the International Crisis Group think tank. "But it really is about what the regime has to offer beyond years of such symbolic military victories," he added.

"If you take a broader perspective, I think it's an indication that this conflict is going to take years."

By early evening Wednesday, some 600 fighters had boarded buses that departed from a police command center on the edge of Homs' rebel-held areas, heading north to rebel held towns of Talbiseh and al-Dar al-Kabira, opposition activists said. Many of the rebels were wounded, and it was unclear how many civilians were among them.

According to the deal, each fighter was allowed to carry his rifle and a bag of belongings with him. One rocket propelled grenade launcher and a machinegun were also allowed on each bus.

"We shall return to Homs!" some of the evacuees chanted as they arrived in al-Dar al-Kabria and residents rushed to give them fruits and water, according to Mohammed Rahal, an activist who was there to receive them. He said some of the fighters were "so weak they needed assistance to walk."

Videos of the evacuation posted online by activists captured the massive destruction inflicted on Homs from months of bombardment. Buildings were shattered, some with chunks of concrete dangling from twisted rebar, others with upper floors collapsed. Rebels with bags of belongings -- some with their faces covered -- boarded green buses as black-uniformed police oversaw the process. At least one U.N.-marked vehicle was parked nearby. Then the buses trundled down a battered road past the wrecked city landscape.

The videos appeared genuine and matched the AP's reporting on the evacuation.

It was a bitter moment for the exhausted rebels, who had pledged to fight to the end in 13 neighborhoods in and around the historic quarters of Homs where they had been holed up under siege for more than a year.

Homs, with a prewar population of 1.2 million was among the first to rise up in early 2011 with waves of exuberant anti-Assad protests. As Syria's conflict turned into outright civil war, rebels took control of nearly 70 percent of the city, whose population represents Syria's mix -- with a largely pro-rebel Sunni majority and a pro-Assad Alawite minority, along with Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities.

The city quickly came under a series of crushing government offensives, turning into a battleground that left entire blocks and much of its historic quarters in ruins. Thousands of people were killed and almost all its residents fled. Tit-for-tat sectarian killings rose, reflecting the increasingly religious dimension of the conflict nationwide.

Rebels were slowly pushed back. For well over a year, government forces have been besieging rebels in around a dozen districts around its ancient bazaars. With food and medicine short, a first major group -- around 1,400 people, including fighters and residents -- evacuated earlier this year in a U.N.-mediated operation.

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