Homs agreement calls for Syrian rebels to identify booby traps in return for evacuation


McClatchy Foreign Staff

The last Syrian rebels in the old city district of Homs held onto their positions Monday as they waited for a U.N.-supervised truce to go into effect that will give them safe passage to rebel-controlled towns in the provincial countryside.

Under the deal's terms, which were announced Monday by the governor of Homs province, Talal al Barazi, the remaining rebels will be taken by bus to Talbisseh and Dar al Kabira, two towns north of Homs. The rebels also will identify where they’ve planted booby traps in the old city. The deal is to take effect within 48 hours, “depending on the situation on the ground,” Barazi told Syrian state television.

It was unclear if all of the groups inside Homs, which include al Qaida-linked militants from the Nusra Front, had agreed to the arrangement.

“I hope that things will go smoothly, in which case the initiative will be completed quickly,” Barazi said.

A rebel commander now based in Lebanon who’s been helping with the negotiations said the deal foresees a rebel withdrawal over three days. He said about 2,000 rebel fighters and their families would be evacuated.

“We are in the process of working with the regime and the Red Crescent to arrange for a safe way for them to move and to show the regime where many of the booby traps and IEDs are set,” said the commander, Abu Omar al Homsi.

Unexploded ordnance will be a major hazard once the evacuation is completed. The area has been heavily mined by rebels and shelled nonstop for weeks by government forces, leaving behind many unexploded shells.

A U.N.-brokered deal earlier in the year allowed hundreds of rebel fighters and civilians to abandon the area, but the few remaining holdouts had held on despite an extensive government bombardment.

Arab-language media reported that the agreement had been delayed because of vocal opposition by the Syrian militia operating in the area, the National Defense Forces, which had been fighting in Homs for nearly a year.

At the end, according to both rebels and a commander for Lebanon’s Hezbollah who had recently led a pro-government unit in the area, the government decided that allowing a withdrawal was preferable to what could only have been a bloody last stand as Syrian troops tried to clear the area.

“They would have fought to the death, and after not surrendering in the face of that bombardment, Assad knew that he would lose too many men and control a ghost of a city,” Homsi said.

The Hezbollah commander put a slightly different spin on the decision. “They can’t get out on their own, we hold the city,” said Abu Reda Moqtad, who rotated back to Beirut late last month from Homs. The decision to let the rebels escape “made a lot of people mad” but was a reasonable one, he said.

“They were fortified and fanatics who are ready to die. We would lose too many men,” he said. “It’s better to kill them with planes in the countryside,” he joked.

The Syrian Minister of Tourism predicted “a prosperous tourist season” for the mostly destroyed city, where tens of thousands of people have died in the last three years. Bisher Yazighi, in remarks quoted by the Syrian Arab News Agency, said the government had “various activities planned for this summer” that would revitalize the Homs tourism industry.

Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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