Syrian rebels on Sunday reached a deal with the regime for the withdrawal of rebels, civilians and wounded people from the city of Homs, where they have been under siege for two years, as the army advanced in the strategic town of Mleiha near Damascus.
“An agreement occurred between representatives of the rebels and the chiefs of security, in the presence of the Iranian ambassador, for the pullout of fighters from the Old City to the northern countryside of Homs,” said Abul Hareth al-Khalidi, a rebel negotiator.
He added that talks are now focused on implementation.
Homs was dubbed the “capital of the revolution” at the start of the 2011 uprising against President Bashar Assad.
Around 2,250 people, mostly fighters, will evacuate the Old City area, which lies in the heart of Syria’s third city Homs, according to a version of the agreement obtained by Agence France Presse from an opposition source.
Abul Harith said civilians and wounded people will also be evacuated from the battered Old City, much of which has been destroyed by near-daily bombardment and constant fighting.
Fighters will withdraw to a rebel-controlled area in the north of Homs province, according to the text.
They will be allowed to withdraw with light weapons, and one rocket launcher will be permitted on every bus used for the evacuation.
The Red Crescent, adds the text, will transport the wounded.
“The guarantors (of the deal) will be the presence of members of the United Nations and Iranian negotiators on the buses,” according to the text.
The deal was reached as part of an exchange for an unknown number of Iranian and Lebanese prisoners currently held by the Islamic Front, Syria’s largest rebel alliance.
“Implementation will begin after those being held by the Islamic Front are released, and after permission is given to allow relief to enter the (Shiite, pro-regime) towns of Nubol and Zahraa in Aleppo province,” according to the text.
But regime representatives said it was an “arrangement” rather than a deal.
“There is no deal, there is an arrangement and reconciliations that should lead to the handing over of the city, stripped empty of weapons and of armed men,” said Homs governor Talal al-Barazi.
“On the ground there is nothing yet,” he said.
The main opposition National Coalition, for its part, issued a statement in praise of “the heroic actions of the revolutionaries” in Homs.
The group also called on the United Nations “to fulfill its duty and to ensure the regime honors the truce” which began on Friday.
An activist from Homs told AFP: “Today, the modus operandi of the withdrawal was put in place. But there will be fear from both sides until the exit takes place.”
Meanwhile, regime forces made major advances Sunday on Mleiha, a town strategically located southeast of Damascus near the airport road, a security official said.
“More than half of the town is under army control,” the official told Agence France Presse, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The army has reached the town hall building. All the orchards and roads leading to the town are now in the army’s hands, as is the south, the west and the southeast.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported the advance, but the head of the monitoring group said it was unclear how firmly in control the army was.
Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said: “Regime troops have reached the town center. Hizbullah is playing the lead role in the battle.”
Hizbullah has sent thousands of fighters into Syria to back President Bashar Assad’s regime.
They have been especially active around Damascus, Homs in central Syria and Aleppo in the north.
Like the rest of the Eastern Ghouta area, Mleiha has been under siege for a year, and under a fierce bombardment campaign for weeks.
“Its capture would be very important for the army to secure Jaramana,” said Abdel Rahman, referring to a regime-controlled, majority Druze and Christian suburb of Damascus near Mleiha.
Its fall from rebel hands would also be key for the regime’s bid to take back the Eastern Ghouta area, a rebel bastion.