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Beirut - Syrian rebels began to evacuate their last footholds in the central city of Homs on Wednesday, departing under a deal loaded with poignancy for the opposition.
Hundreds of rebels boarded buses for the countryside north of the city after being allowed safe exit in a deal confirmed by both sides. Each fighter was allowed to carry a single weapon and a bag of belongings.
In return, rebels said, they agreed to allow aid into two pro-government towns they had besieged for more than a year and to hand over prisoners.
Rebel forces have been steadily squeezed into an ever-shrinking patch of land in the Old City of Homs.
The streets where some of the biggest protests against President Bashar Assad were once held have been pummeled by artillery and airstrikes. Meanwhile, residents and rebel fighters have faced near-starvation under a tight government siege.
"The city of Homs is the capital of the revolution," said Faisal Shareef, an activist in the city, describing as "painful" the evacuation of an area that so many rebels had died defending.
"But the martyrs did not shed their blood for nothing," Shareef said. "There is always a message and a goal. It was an attempt for liberation and dignity. They lost the battle, but it's not the end of the war."
In contrast to the rebels' despondency, the governor of Homs province, Talal Barazi, told the pro-government al-Watan newspaper that "the situation is positive and calls for high spirits."
The truce will allow the Old City "to return to being a safe and stable area, free from weapons and armed men," he said.
The deal to pacify a longtime opposition bastion adds wind to the sails of the government just weeks ahead of Syria's presidential election, which the United States has dismissed as a "parody of democracy." Assad is running for a third seven-year term.
The government has been slowly regaining its grip on central Syria. The evacuations Wednesday follow similar cease-fires in the suburbs of the capital, Damascus, that resulted from what the opposition described as "starve or surrender" tactics by the government.
As rebels suffered the humiliating withdrawal in Homs, Ahmad al-Jarba, the leader of the main Syrian Opposition Coalition, pleaded for antiaircraft weapons during a visit to Washington, where he is expected to meet President Barack Obama.
Rebel fighters, outgunned and running low on food, had been trying to negotiate a safe exit from Homs for months. However, the delicate talks were stymied by demands on both sides and faced vehement opposition from pro-government militias.
After talks broke down last month and the government stepped up its bombardment of the city, the opposition pleaded for a safe exit for the fighters.
About 600 fighters had left the city by the end of the day, activists said Wednesday, with evacuations expected to continue Thursday. They said that even hard-line fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra, a rebel group affiliated with al-Qaida, agreed to the deal.
Before the agreement, most estimates put the number of people in the Old City of Homs at 1,200. About 1,400 were evacuated as part of a U.N.-brokered cease-fire in February.
At the time, evacuees spoke of scavenging for food in abandoned houses and eating weeds to survive.
Although that deal covered only women, children and the elderly, hundreds of men of fighting age also chose to hand themselves over, broken by the brutality of the siege.
The majority of the about 240,000 people who the United Nations estimates are living under siege are suffering at the hands of government blockades, but rebels also have used siege tactics.
Nobul and Zahra, two Shiite towns a few miles north of the city of Aleppo, have been cut off by rebels for more than a year. Activists said the Homs evacuations were temporarily halted Wednesday after the Islamic Front, a powerful rebel alliance, blocked aid reaching the towns, as agreed under the truce.
Its terms also stipulated the release of a Russian military officer, dozens of pro-government fighters and an Iranian woman being held by rebel fighters, according to activists.
Videos posted online showed rebels arriving in opposition-held rural areas north of Homs in green coaches. Under the deal, which stipulates that the evacuations be overseen by the United Nations, rebels are assured safe passage to the towns of Talbiseh and al-Dar al-Kabira, a short car journey from the city.