In Syria, deal struck to allow rebels to leave city of Homs

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BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian opposition fighters will be allowed to leave the last rebel-held neighborhood in the city of Homs under a Russia-backed deal signed on Monday, a Syrian official and an activist said.

According to Talal Barrazi, the governor of Homs province where the city of Homs is the capital, the deal is to be carried out within six to eight weeks. The rebel fighters who decide to stay in Homs can benefit from a government amnesty that was issued earlier, he added.

Homs, the country's third largest city, was once the center of the uprising against President Bashar Assad. During the civil war, now in its sixth year, wide parts of the city were held by rebels and insurgents but the state eventually regained control of all areas of the city except for al-Waer, the last rebel neighborhood.

Al-Waer is home to about 75,000 people and has been under a government siege since 2013, triggering shortages of medicine and on occasion also food.

Barrazi's statement, carried by state news agency SANA, said the evacuation is the third phase of a deal reached last year that saw hundreds of fighters and their families leave al-Waer to other rebel-held areas.

Opposition activist Bebars al-Talawy, who is from al-Waer, said the agreement was signed Monday, adding that a committee will be formed to prepare the lists of names of those who want to leave.

"People are happy that they will get rid of the siege, but sad because they will leave Homs," al-Talawy said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights criticized the agreement, saying it aims to displace 12,000 al-Waer residents, including 2,500 fighters. It said the first batch of 1,500 people will be evacuated next week and will be followed by similar groups over the coming weeks.

Those who leave will be taken to rebel-held areas elsewhere in Homs province, the northwestern province of Idlib and the town of Tel Abyad near the border with Turkey, the Observatory said. It said Monday's deal followed weeks of intense bombardment and airstrikes on the neighborhood that left 250 killed or wounded.

Syrian state TV said the first group will leave al-Waer on Saturday. The discrepancy between the TV report on the timing of the rebel departure and that of the Observatory could not immediately be reconciled.

Also on Monday, to the east of Homs, Syrian government forces regained control of a power station that has been held by the Islamic State group near the historic town of Palmyra, SANA reported.

Government forces have been on the offensive in the Palmyra area for weeks, regaining control of the historic town as well as a nearby oil field.

On Wednesday, Syrians mark the sixth anniversary since the beginning of the conflict, which the Observatory says has killed some 465,000 people including 96,073 civilians.

Syrian state TV reported that a government delegation has arrived in the Kazakh capital of Astana to take part in a meeting planned and sponsored by Russia and Turkey. Syria's armed opposition groups have already called for postponing the meeting in Astana, saying that violations of a Russia-backed cease-fire have persisted, and two Syrian opposition figures have said that the armed opposition will not take part in the two-day meeting scheduled to begin on Tuesday.


Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.

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