The Syrian government was Saturday enjoying a symbolic victory as civilians began trickling back into the rubble of Homs’ Old City after the last rebels left under an evacuation deal.
The pullout, completed Friday, leaves the rebels confined to a single district on the outskirts of the central city, once “the capital of the revolution” against President Bashar al-Assad.
As troops moved in to clear out explosives, hundreds of civilians began returning to see what remained of their homes in Hamidiyeh, a Christian district in the Old Town, which has been under nearly daily bombardment during a two-year siege.
Many were shocked, with tears in their eyes, as they climbed over debris to inspect the ruins, said an AFP journalist at the scene.
“My whole house is destroyed. I went to my in-laws’ home, and that’s destroyed too. Nothing, except a few objects, remains,” said Wafa.
The final convoy of rebels withdrew after a day-long delay blamed on fighters in northern Syria blocking an aid convoy destined for two pro-regime towns besieged by opposition fighters in Aleppo province.
The delivery had been pledged as part of an exchange that eventually saw some 2,000 people, mainly rebels, leave the Old City with a guarantee of safe passage.
Homs Governor Talal al-Barazi said “we have completed the evacuation of armed men from the Old City of Homs.”
– ‘No roof, no walls’ –
Most left Wednesday and Thursday, but buses carrying the last 250 rebels were delayed till Friday because fighters not involved in the deal blocked the pledged flow of food supplies into the Shiite towns of Nubol and Zahraa, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Barazi said negotiations were also well advanced for rebels to leave the Wael neighbourhood, their only remaining holdout in Homs, in the coming weeks.
State news agency SANA quoted Barazi as saying government troops had entered the Old City on Friday and began clearing it of explosives planted by the rebels.
A 45-year-old who returned with her husband and did not identify herself said: “I came to check on my house, but I couldn’t find it. I didn’t find a roof, I didn’t find walls. I only found this coffee cup, which I will take with me as a souvenir.”
The neighbourhood was devastated. Shop windows were cracked, and the few walls remaining upright were riddled with bullets.
This is not the first deal between the government and the rebels, but is the first time rebel fighters have withdrawn from an area they controlled after an accord.
It is also the first time Syria’s rebels and security agencies have signed a deal after negotiations, supervised by the ambassador of key Damascus ally Iran.
UN Resident Coordinator Yaacub El Hillo, who was in Homs, welcomed the deal.
– ‘This is encouraging’ –
“If the Homs operation… is the implementation of a political solution through understanding, this is encouraging,” he told AFP, adding the UN’s role had been restricted to help build trust.
The government allowed the rebels to withdraw with their personal weapons in return for the release of 40 Alawite women and children, an Iranian woman and 30 soldiers held elsewhere in Syria.
The army has imposed many sieges in the three-year-old conflict but 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, and people were left to survive on little more than herbs.
In other developments, senior UN aid official John Ging accused the regime of blockading medical supplies from convoys bound for opposition-held areas, which he termed an “abomination”.
But he also said hampering aid was a tactic used by all involved in the Syrian war and said it was up to countries with influence over the rival sides to help break the deadlock.
Meanwhile the United States urged both Syria and Russia to ensure that the remaining stockpile of Syrian chemical weapons is handed over to UN inspectors for destruction.
The UN’s Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is overseeing the elimination of Syria’s toxic arms, has said some 92 percent of the declared stockpile has been removed from the country or destroyed.
However Washington remains skeptical as to whether Assad has revealed the full extent of his country’s stockpile.
The two nations reached the agreement, which sets a June 30 deadline for the destruction of the whole stockpile, after a sarin gas attack in the Damascus suburbs in August killed hundreds of people.
US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel will fly to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel next week for talks expected to focus on Syria and on Iran’s nuclear programme, officials said.