The last rebels were pulling out from the centre of thebattleground city of Homs on Thursday, handing a symbolic victory to SyrianPresident Bashar al-Assad ahead of a controversial election.Rebels hit back in the historic heart of Aleppo, blowing up a luxury hotel turnedarmy position after tunnelling under the front line which divides the main city ofnorthern Syria.At least 14 soldiers and pro-government militiamen were killed in the explosion andits aftermath, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.Around 1,000 rebel fighters have left the Old City of Homs under the unprecedentednegotiated evacuation that began Wednesday, according to figures given to AFP byprovincial governor Talal Barazi.But seven buses carrying the last 300 fighters were stopped because Islamistfighters were refusing to allow food supplies into two rebel-besieged Shiite towns inAleppo province, the Observatory said.Barazi said they were stopped at the northern exit from the Old City, without givinga reason.Rami Abdel Rahman, who heads the Syrian Observatory, said Islamists were limitingntry of supplies to Zahraa and Nabol to two trucks, instead of 12 as agreed by theregime and rebels in negotiations to which they were not a party.
Barazi earlier said more than 200 fighters had been evacuated Thursday, in additionto 980 people, mostly rebels but including some women and children, bussed out ofthe Old City on Wednesday.The pullout following an army siege of nearly two years leaves the rebels confinedto a single district on the outskirts of a city that what was once a bastion of theuprising.Barazi said negotiations were well advanced for the rebels to leave thatneighbourhood too in the coming weeks.He said the fighters and some civilians evacuated withthemwerebussedouttotheopposition-held town of Dar al-Kabira, 20 kilometres (13 miles) north of Homs.Barazi was able to visit his former office in the Old City on Thursday for the firsttime in three years.Government troops played football on the square housing Homs's landmark clocktower, once the scene of the city's massive anti-government protests.A soldier climbed onto the rooftop of a house and told AFP: "This is the first time Iclimb up here without fearing snipers.""Come on, shoot me!" he called out to another soldier, who took a photograph ofhim.It is not the first deal between the government and the rebels -- a number ofceasefires have been agreed on the outskirts of Damascus.But it is the first time that rebel fighters have withdrawn from an area theycontrolled under an accord with the government.The government allowed the remaining rebels in Homs to pull out with theirpersonal weapons in return for the release of 40 Alawite women and children, anIranian woman and 30 soldiers held hostage by rebels elsewhere in Syria, a rebelspokesman said.The Britain-based Syrian Observatory monitoring group confirmed that all thehostages had been released by Thursday afternoon.The deal, in negotiations overseen by the ambassador of the Syrian regime's closeally Iran, also involved the distribution of aid into Nubol and Zahraa.- 'Big game' -Abu Wissam, a rebel fighter being evacuated from the city centre, bemoaned theoutside interests now at play in a conflict that had begun as an Arab Spring-inspiredprotest movement."I took part in the protests from very early on. During that time, there were no
international agendas controlling the protests," he told AFP via the Internet."But now, everyone is moved like pawns in a chess game" between regional andinternational powers, he said.There have been many sieges imposed by both sides in the three-year-old conflictbut that of the Old City of Homs has been by the far longest.Some 2,200 people were killed as near daily bombardment reduced the area to ruins.The rebel pullout comes less than a month before a controversial presidentialelection, described as farce by Western governments and the opposition, that isexpected to return Assad to office.On a visit to Washington for talks with President Barack Obama, opposition chiefAhmad Jarba said the vote will give Assad "a licence ... to kill his own people formany years to come."In Aleppo, the rebel attack claimed by the massive Islamic Front alliance completelydestroyed the Carlton Citadel Hotel, just across the road from the city's UNESCO-listed Citadel, which the army had been using as a frontline position.
A rebel offensive in July 2012 when they seized large swathes of Aleppo left theCitadel and nearby hotels which once thronged with foreign tourists on the frontline of the deadly conflict.