Syrian rebels opposing the Bashar al-Assad government began evacuating their last enclave in the city of Homs, once dubbed the “capital of the revolution”.
An estimated 1,500 people – 400 militants and family members – were bussed out of al-Wair district on Saturday as part of a Russian-backed deal also including Turkey.
The opposition Homs Media Centre said that up to 15,000 could be evacuated in the coming days, reported Reuters news agency.
Photos on social media showed busses arriving in Turkish controlled areas near al-Bab in northwestern Syria. The UK-based group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the evacuees would be taken to Jarablus, also in the hands of Turkish backed-rebels.
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Responding to accusations that the demographics of the city were being changed, Homs Governor Talal al-Barazi refuted the claims and said they were attempts at sabotaging the reconciliation.
Barazi told Syrian state news agency SANA that 40,000 people will stay in the neighbourhood after all armed fighters who reject the reconciliation leave along with their families, reportedly 10,000 people in total.
Assad had recently said deals brokered locally with rebels were “the real political solutions”. and added that he had not expected anything from Geneva, where UN-led peace talks ended this month with no breakthrough, Reuters said.
However opposition fighters have decried the situation saying they have been coerced into such agreements by brutal sieges and bombardments.
Other evacuees are expected to be taken to Idlib, which has become a refuge for rebel factions following their defeat in Aleppo in December.
As the expected capture of Islamic State (IS) strongholds in Syria and Iraq near, commentators have said the Syrian war is coming to a close and the rebels have lost.