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(SANA | The Associated Press) A photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA shows Syrian people gather at the site of one of two car bombs that exploded in the pro-government district of Zahra in the central Syrian city of Homs, Syria, on Tuesday. Dozens of people were killed and wounded in the attacks just hours after one of the deadliest mortar strikes in the heart of the capital, Damascus, killed 14, officials and state media said.
Cease-fire, evacuation deal in Syria’s Homs
Mideast » Though an admission of defeat by opposition, the deal is face-saving for both sides.
First Published May 02 2014 05:03 pm • Last Updated May 02 2014 08:56 pm

Homs, Syria • Isolated and battered after months of bombardment and blockades, Syrian rebels agreed Friday to a cease-fire that would allow hundreds of fighters to evacuate their last bastions in Homs, handing over to President Bashar Assad’s forces a strategic but largely destroyed city once hailed as the capital of the revolution.

The deal reached on Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, follows a series of military gains by the regime around the capital, Damascus, and in the country’s vital center.

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"It will certainly mark a new chapter for the regime, a chapter where it’s regaining control of the country," said Ayham Kamel, an analyst with the Eurasia group in London.

A government seizure of Homs would be "the icing on the cake for Assad," said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at Brookings Doha Center.

Although the agreement, if it holds, represents a demoralizing admission of defeat by opposition forces, it can also be seen as a face-saving deal for both sides. Weakened rebels, for whom Homs’ collapse was only a matter of time, get a safe exit, while the government can save manpower and weapons and claim it was able to retake the last rebel bastions without blood.

The Syrian government can now declare a victory of sorts by claiming control over two of the country’s largest cities — Homs and Damascus — as well as the Mediterranean coast, Assad’s ancestral heartland. But Assad has lost control over large swaths of territory, particularly in the north, and continues to rule over a divided country with a raging insurgency. Syrian officials have scheduled elections for June 3 but say balloting will not take place in rebel-held areas.

The 48-hour cease-fire deal, reported by opposition activists and pro-government TV stations, came after heavy airstrikes and artillery bombardment of rebel-held areas intensified in recent weeks. In a sign the truce was taking hold, an Associated Press team in Homs on Friday reported that the city was unusually quiet, with no shots fired from either side.

The bloodstained city in the central western plains of Syria was among the first to rise up against the president. Early on, residents tried to re-create the fervor of Egypt’s Tahrir Square with waves of anti-Assad protests, only to face siege upon siege by government forces. Homs became a battleground that left entire blocks and much of its historic quarters in ruins with collapsed walls and scorched buildings.

One Homs-based opposition activist said it was a bitter moment for rebels barricaded in 13 neighborhoods around the city’s historic center.

"This isn’t what we wanted, but it’s all we could get," Beibars Tilawi told The Associated Press in a Skype interview. "The regime wanted to take control of the heart of the revolution."

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There was no immediate comment by Syrian officials.

Homs, 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Damascus with a pre-war population of around 1.2 million, is particularly important for its central location. It links the capital with Aleppo in the north — the country’s largest city and another key battleground.

For more than a year, government troops have blockaded rebels inside a string of districts spread over some eight miles (13 kilometers), causing widespread hunger and weakening the fighters.

Equally troublesome for the rebels, their supply lines were squeezed as government troops scored military victories near Damascus and the Lebanon border. Hundreds of fighters have surrendered to Assad-loyal forces in recent months, activists said.

But a hardcore group in Homs remained fighting, dispatching explosive-rigged cars into government-controlled districts, killing dozens of people, mostly civilians. On Tuesday, a double car bombing killed over 50 people.

Lister, the analyst, said the bombings represented "a last gasp attempt at imposing damage on a winning enemy."

Some rebels and activists in Homs have been negotiating a truce for at least two months, but the bulk of the rebels refused to agree until the final, violent push of fighting, activists said.

U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has been pushing for an agreement. The world body also helped oversee the evacuation of hundreds of civilians from Homs’ rebel-held neighborhoods in February.

Activists said the 48-hour truce began Friday, and that some 1,000 rebels belonging to all factions, including the al-Qaida linked Nusra Front, were expected to begin evacuating on Saturday to rebel-held provincial towns north of Homs.

Still, the deal could collapse if there are last-minute disputes over the terms of evacuation and some rebels decide to hold out.

A Syrian opposition figure said some sticking points remained, including whether the rebel-held Waer district just outside the Old City would be included in the deal.

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