The exit of some 1,200 fighters and civilians mark a de facto end to the rebellion in the battered city, which was one of the first places to rise up against president Bashar al-Assad’s rule, earning its nickname as “the capital of the revolution”.
Gaining full control of Syria’s third largest city is a major win for Mr Assad. Militarily, it solidifies the government hold on a swathe of territory in central Syria, linking the capital Damascus with government strongholds along the coast and providing a staging ground to advance against rebel territory further north.
Politically, gains on the ground boost the president’s hold on power before elections set for 3 June.
By yesterday afternoon, more than 400 fighters had boarded buses that departed from a police command centre on the edge of Homs’ rebel-held areas, heading north, opposition activists said. Many of the rebels were wounded, and it was unclear how many civilians were among them. An activist who goes by the name of Abu Yassin al-Homsi said all of the fighters and any remaining civilians would leave the city before the end of the day. The fighters were being taken a few miles north to the rebel-held towns of Talbiseh and al-Dar al-Kabira on the northern edge of Homs province.
Mr Homsi said each fighter was allowed to carry his rifle and a bag of belongings. One rocket-propelled grenade launcher and a machine gun were also allowed on each bus in line with the agreement, he said.
He added: “We are very sad for what is happening today. We kept urging the international community to lift the siege but there was no response. We have lost more than 2,000 martyrs in nearly two years of siege.”
Homs governor Talal Barazi confirmed the rebels had started leaving the old districts. State TV said government forces would enter evacuated neighbourhoods once rebels leave entirely.
The rebels will retain one toe-hold in Homs. Fighters in the Waer district, just outside Homs’ Old City, have so far refused to join the evacuation. Some activists said negotiations were under way for a similar deal there.
The evacuation was a bitter moment for the exhausted rebels, who had pledged to fight to the end in 13 neighbourhoods. Some fighters had said they would rather die than give up the city. The rebels included fighters from the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front group.