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September 21, 2017

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Rebels quit Homs Old City, civilians trickle back to ruins

HOMS, Syria -- The last Syrian rebels left Homs' Old City Friday under an evacuation deal that hands the government a symbolic victory, as civilians began trickling back in to find neighborhoods in rubble.

The pullout from the Old City leaves the rebels confined to a single district on the outskirts of the central city of Homs, once "the capital of the revolution" against President Bashar al-Assad.

As troops moved in to clear the Old City of explosives, hundreds of civilians began returning to see what remained of their homes in a Christian district within the area that has been under nearly daily bombardment during a two-year siege by Assad's forces.

Many were shocked, with tears in their eyes, as they climbed over debris to inspect the ruins, said an AFP journalist at the scene.

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 aid delivery had been pledged as part of an exchange for the safe passage of more than 2,000 people, mainly rebels, out of the Old City.

Homs Governor Talal al-Barazi said "we have completed the evacuation of armed men from the Old City of Homs," referring to the withdrawal, which began Wednesday.

At least 1,630 people, mostly rebels, had already left under the landmark deal, which also saw opposition fighters elsewhere in the war-torn country release dozens of women, children and soldiers taken hostage months earlier.

But seven buses carrying the last 250 rebels were stopped Thursday because Islamist fighters not involved in the deal blocked the pledged flow of food supplies into the Shiite towns of Nubol and Zahraa in Aleppo province, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The last rebels were finally allowed to leave Friday, as the aid convoys arrived in Zahraa, said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.

Barazi said negotiations were well advanced for the rebels to also leave that neighborhood, Waer, in the coming weeks.

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