The evacuation of rebel-held parts of Homs city beganWednesday under an unprecedented deal which hands back control to thegovernment less than a month before Syria's presidential election.After nearly two years of government siege, civilians and rebel forces began to leavethe Old City and surrounding areas on buses taking them to opposition territory innorthern Homs province.Their departure saves both sides the prospect of a drawn-out, potentiallydevastating battle, and it allows rebels to leave with some of their weaponry.The deal effectively turns over the city once dubbed the "capital of the revolution"to government control ahead of a June 3 election expected to return PresidentBashar al-Assad to office.The evacuation began at around 10 am (0700GMT), with three buses carryingcivilians and fighters, some of them wounded, departing the devastated Old City, arebel negotiator told AFP.A video posted online by opposition activists showed a group of fighters, some withtheir faces covered with black or white scarves, walking in a line towards greenbuses.They carried backpacks and light weapons as they boarded the buses, under thegaze of regime police and accompanied by a white UN car.Around an hour after the operation began, negotiator Abul Hareth al-Khalidi said, afirst bus had arrived in the north of the province.And by early afternoon, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 222 peoplehad left out of approximately 1,200 believed to be in the Old City.The evacuees are being transferred to the rebel-held town of Dar al-Kebira, 20kilometres (12 miles) from Homs.- 'Tearful' departure -Wael, an activist in the northern Homs province village of Termaaleh, told AFP hehad received some of the evacuees, who were emotional."I asked one of my friends, who is now resting in my house, and he said to me thathe felt hungry, and in pain and tearful over leaving Homs," he said."He said he felt his soul being pulled out of his body as he left Homs."The deal between the regime and rebels, mediated by Iran's ambassador to Syria,was reached as part of an exchange for a number of hostages being held byopposition fighters in the northern city of Aleppo.And under the agreement, fighters will also allow aid into two Shiite majority townsin Aleppo province, Nubol and Zahraa, where some 45,000 people are under rebel
siege.- Homs returns to government -The Observatory said by early afternoon aid had started to reach the two towns, andthat an unspecified number of released hostages had arrived in the regime-heldcoastal city of Latakia.
Once the Homs operation is complete, the evacuated areas are to be turned over tothe government, which is expected to send in forces to sweep for mines andexplosives.The regime will then have control of all but one major area of Homs city.While the area being reclaimed by the government is relatively small, it retains hugesymbolic importance for the opposition.At the start of Syria's uprising in March 2011, Homs came to be known as the"capital of the revolution" because of its massive anti-regime protests.And after the opposition took up arms in response to a brutal governmentcrackdown, the city gained iconic status among the opposition for resisting multipleoffensives.
During a nearly two-year government blockade, which left around 3,000 peopletrapped, food and medical supplies dwindled.In February, a UN-Red Crescent operation successfully evacuated around 1,400people, and delivered limited aid to the besieged areas.But hundreds of fighters and wounded people unable to make it to evacuation
points were left behind, and government forces launched a fresh assault last month.Many of those evacuated in February moved to the rebel-held Waer district, whichwill be the only remaining opposition area left in Homs city after the Old Cityoperation.Negotiations are underway for a similar deal to be implemented in Waer, according
to government and opposition officials.