The governor of Homs said late on Monday the planned evacuation of several hundred Syrian rebels from their last foothold in the city would be postponed for several days because it was difficult to guarantee their safe passage.
The district of al-Waer in Homs, home to 60,000 people, is besieged by the government since 2014, which has been seeking to conclude local agreements with rebels to win back full control of strategic areas in western Syria.
Under the agreement, signed late in August by the local reconciliation committee and government officials, President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are to end the siege on the area and stop bombardments in return for the withdrawal of rebel groups.
The evacuation was expected to begin on Monday to Idlib province, part of the Syrian government’s attempts to conclude local agreements with rebels in besieged areas to give them safe passage to the insurgent stronghold of Idlib in northwestern Syria.
“When conditions are right, the evacuation of fighters and their families will happen straight away,” Homs Governor Talal Barazi said late on Monday.
“The postponement is for logistical reasons, to do with the safe arrival of the armed groups who will leave al Waer,” Barazi said.
Barazi said the evacuation in 22 busses of around 300 fighters and their families, around 1,000 people in total, was expected to begin in 2-3 days.
Explaining the obstacles that led to the delay, Barazi said earth berms and concrete barricades need to be removed from the route to ensure the rebels reach their final destination. He said this could be Idlib province or the border with Turkey.
The previously signed truce document stated that the deal is to be implemented in five stages, whereby rebels would be evacuated gradually and detainees held in government prisons would be released.
In the first stage in the implementation of the agreement, 300 rebels and their families would be evacuated to opposition-held areas in northern Syria, mainly to the province of Idlib. In return, the government would open the roads to al-Waer and allow food in.
The second stage would see the withdrawal of 500 rebel members along with their families from the neighbourhood and the release of 200 al-Waer residents detained in government-run prisons.
In the third stage, the government would declare the fate of prisoners based on a list submitted by the reconciliation committee, and 300 more rebel fighters will be evacuated to northern Syria with their families.
The opposition fighters, in the fourth stage, would withdraw from government institutions, and all the remaining rebels would be evacuated with their families.
Finally, the government would consolidate full control over the neighbourhood.
A nation-wide exudus
In several Syrian areas, lengthy government sieges have prompted rebels to agree to evacuation deals, leading activists to accuse Damascus of using “starve or surrender” tactics.
Last week, buses evacuated residents and rebel fighters from the Damascus suburb of Daraya under a deal that was agreed on after a four-year siege by government forces.
Another deal is being discussed for the besieged Muadamiya suburb of Damascus, but Al Jazeera’s correspondent in the area said a final agreement between the government and rebels had yet to be reached.
Final conditions dictated by Assad’s forces require that rebels hand over all their weapons before being transferred to Idlib.
Some opposition groups have criticized these preconditions, calling them a major setback as Sunnis would be forced from their homes, further fracturing the country along sectarian lines.
They are seen as part of a pattern in which the government pushes out Sunni communities that have been living there for decades. In 2015, there was a similar deal in Zabadani on the outskirts of the capital.