Syrian rebels, civilians evacuating last stronghold in country’s center

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Cairo, May 8 (IANS) Syrian rebel militants, their relatives and other civilians on Monday began to leave the country’s last major rebel stronghold, located between the central cities of Hama and Homs, under an evacuation deal reached with the government, according to a Britain-based war monitor.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that 25 buses had so far left rebel-controlled areas north of Homs for the northern province of Aleppo, and it is expected that more vehicles are to join this first convoy.

The departure of the combatants and their relatives, as well as other civilians who refuse to remain in the area after it comes under government control, was taking place within the framework of a surrender agreement that also includes the evacuation of areas south of Hama.

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The deal was reached May 2 between militant factions in the two provinces and Syrian authorities with the mediation of Russia, whose military intervention in Syria in 2015 turned the tide of the war in favour of the government.

On May 3, fighters began handing over their heavy and medium weapons to Syrian and Russian forces as a first step toward the implementation of the agreement, which is taking place in several stages.

On April 15, government forces launched a military offensive in the areas between Homs and Hama to force combatants to reach a deal, a similar strategy employed Syrian authorities to regain control of several areas of the country, particularly around the capital Damascus.

The only pockets still outside government control near the capital are dominated by the Islamic State and Tahrir al-Sham, the former Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda.

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