Assad’s forces take Homs as last of rebels leave city

Capital of Syrian revolt to be declared a ‘secure city’ as army moves in

Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, has a strategic position linking the country’s main north-south axis with the route to the government’s strongholds on the Mediterranean coast. Photograph: EPA

Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, has a strategic position linking the country’s main north-south axis with the route to the government’s strongholds on the Mediterranean coast. Photograph: EPA

 

Syrian forces took full control today over Homs, a city once associated with scenes of joyous pro-democracy crowds but now famed for images of ruin that epitomise the brutality of Syria’s civil war.

After holding the Old City of Homs for nearly two years, around 1,200 rebel fighters and trapped civilians boarded buses which took them out of the “capital of the revolution” in convoys on yesterday and today, activists said.

They were driven to rebel-held territory outside the city under a deal agreed between the insurgents and forces loyal to president Bashar al-Assad.

“Old Homs has been completely cleansed of armed terrorist groups,” state television said.

Homs provincial governor Talal Barazi told Reuters earlier today that Homs would be “declared a secure city” and reconstruction would commence after the evacuation.

Although the area had been cleared of insurgents, the army is not expected to move into the Old City until tomorrow when it will be checked for explosives.

Rebels smiled to cameras as they left, but the fall of Syria’s third largest city to government forces is a major blow to the opposition and a boost for Dr Assad weeks before his likely re-election.

When thousands of Syrians took to the streets of Homs in 2011, it electrified the nation and anti-Assad demonstrations erupted in every major city. Government forces cracked down on the religiously mixed city with batons and live ammunition.

Mortar bombs were fired on protests in Homs and the revolution became armed. Rebel groups spread through the city as civilians fled or cowered in the basements of battered buildings. A year ago, government forces laid siege to the Old City and residents said they starved.

Today, the city was close to silent with no sound of gunfire or explosions. Many buildings at the entrance to the Old City district lay in ruins, destroyed by three years of fighting.

Lebanon’s al-Manar television aired footage from Homs of a line of rebel fighters, some carrying guns and wearing scarves around their faces, walking to green buses, passing government troops.

Assad gains

At the same time as rebels were evacuated from Homs, dozens of captives held by rebels in the northern provinces of Aleppo and Latakia were freed as part of the same deal.

Governor Barazi told state media that 70 people abducted by rebels were released, including five children and 17 women, and state television said more people were later released from Latakia today.

The Homs evacuation comes after months of gains by the army, backed by its Lebanese ally Hezbollah, along a strategic corridor of territory linking the capital Damascus with Homs and on to Dr Assad’s Alawite heartland on the Mediterranean.

Dr Assad’s forces now control most of the capital, along with the main highway from Damascus to the coast, while rebels control much of the desert in the north and east. Syria’s second city, Aleppo in the northwest, is contested.

Many areas in Homs province remain in rebel hands, including the stronghold town of Rastan, and Dr Assad will also need to secure rural areas around the capital to take full control of areas the Syrian army has been battling for. Government forces have also lost ground in the south to Islamist brigades.

Dr Assad is widely expected to be the runaway victor in the June 3rd presidential vote, which his opponents at home and abroad have dismissed as a charade.

They say no credible election can be held in a country fractured by civil war, with swathes of territory outside government control, 6 million people displaced and another 2.5 million refugees abroad.

More than 150,000 people have died in the conflict. Millions more have fled their homes and fighting regularly kills more than 200 people a day.

Reuters

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.