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Rebels leave Homs’ old city, ending one of Syrian war’s bitterest standoffs

The last rebel fighters barricaded in the old city district of Homs began to leave their positions Wednesday, boarding buses under an Iranian-brokered cease-fire that were to carry them to refuge in rebel-controlled areas outside the city.

The rebels’ departure marked the effective end of a more-than-two-year campaign by opponents of President Bashar Assad to control the country’s third largest city. It came amid a series of government successes in expelling rebel units from population centers in central Syria and around the capital, Damascus.

Whether it would end the fighting in Homs was uncertain, however. Some of the rebels decamped to the nearby neighborhood of Waer, where a planned cease-fire and government takeover didn’t take place as scheduled Wednesday, and much of the countryside north of the city remains under rebel control.

Rebel units sought to portray their retreat as something other than defeat. One video clip posted on the Internet caught the poignant scene of a gaunt rebel aboard a pickup. “We did not lose Homs,” he shouted. “We were betrayed by the world. May God forgive the people who neglected us.”

Videos broadcast by Syrian state television or posted on the Internet by pro-rebel activists showed two buses departing the old city. They were met outside the city by rebel units in pickups and on motorcycles. The evacuation was expected to take the fighters north along the highway that links Homs and Hama to al Dara al Kabira, a rebel-held village.

Activists also posted video showing armored bulldozers clearing heavily mined rubble from the old city’s streets as groups of bedraggled fighters, many with scarves covering their faces, waited for the buses under the watchful eye of what appeared to be U.N. monitors. One of the conditions of the withdrawal and safe passage out of the city was that rebels reveal the locations of booby traps and homemade bombs they’d placed around the district.

Activists said the fighters who left Wednesday comprised 600 wounded soldiers and their families. The total number of fighters expected to withdraw is 1,200 to 2,000, activists said.

Since early in the civil war, Homs had been the symbol of rebellion against the government. Much of the central city lies in ruins after years of government artillery and aerial bombardment in an effort to dislodge rebel forces. For the past year, the old city district has been under government siege, which included cutting off food, electricity and water to rebel-held areas. The death toll in the battle is thought to number in the thousands.

The deal to spare a final bloody showdown in the rubble-strewn streets of the old city became increasingly complex over the final days of negotiations and sprawled to include a rebel agreement to lift the siege on two pro-government villages outside Aleppo in the north as well as to release an unknown number of pro-government hostages taken in various operations. Russian and Iranian news outlets also reported that the deal included the release of several hostages from those countries, though there was no independent confirmation.

Rebel spokesmen said the siege had been lifted on the villages, Nubol and al Zahraa, a claim that Al Mayadeen, a Lebanese news channel with close ties to the militant Islamist group Hezbollah, confirmed in a report from Nubol. But the TV station said food and medical supplies had yet to be delivered.

Iran and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, which have been supporting the Assad government, had pressed for lifting the rebel siege on the Shiite Muslim villages.

Iran took a high-profile role in the final days of the talks, unsettling many activists and rebels who loathe its support for the regime and its close ally Hezbollah’s open military involvement on the battlefield in Homs and other parts of Syria.

“This deal proves that the Assad regime is a puppet manipulated by Iran, and that it is the sole importer of terrorists, and perhaps the exclusive agent of terrorism in the region,” Noura al Ameer of the Syrian Opposition Coalition said in a statement Tuesday.