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Homs fighters’ evacuation delayed
May 04, 2014
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BEIRUT: The planned evacuation of fighters from rebel-held parts of the Syrian city of Homs was delayed on Saturday, activists said, though a cease-fire still was holding in the country’s third-largest city.
 
Rebels in the city agreed Friday surrender territory in exchange for safe passage to other opposition-held areas.
The agreement came after a blockade by Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s forces caused widespread hunger in rebel-held parts of the city, which have been hit relentlessly by government artillery and airstrikes.
 
Local activist Samer Al Homsi and other three activists said it wasn’t clear why Syrian forces weren’t allowing the first phase of several hundred rebel fighters to leave. One Homs-based activist said rebels were gathering wounded fighters, so they could be taken out as a first priority, beginning Sunday.
 
Other Homs-based activists said they believed the delays were over a plan to allow food and aid into two blockaded areas — one blockaded by rebels in the northern province of Aleppo, and another blockaded by pro-government forces near Homs. Activists also said a prisoner exchange deal between rebels and Assad’s forces in central and northern Syria also could be delaying the move. Homs was once known as the capital of the Syrian revolution for its fierce opposition to Assad’s rule. Assad’s forces have been taking back rebel-held areas throughout Syria with a mix of blockades, deals with rebels and relentlessly pounding of opposition-held areas.
 
On Saturday, Assad’s forces entered in the rural town of Mleeha near the capital, Damascus, state-run television and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
 
The town was one of the last near the capital held by rebels. State television also said government fighters advanced into rebel-held parts of Aleppo.
 
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that he spoke with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday about the need to ensure that the last declared stockpile of Syria’s chemical weapons is removed.
 
“I pressed that we must see the last removal of the 8 per cent remaining at a site near Damascus,” Kerry told reporters, saying the telephone conversation took place during his flight to Democratic Republic of Congo.
 
“We agreed that we would work on certain things to try to see if it is possible to accelerate that process with an understanding that the government of Syria cannot delay,” he said, without elaborating.

Kerry put the onus on the Syrian government to prepare the weapons for removal.

“The regime must move immediately to prepare those remaining chemical weapons for removal and we need to meet that removal as fast as possible,” he said.

Syria has been removing 1,300 tonnes of chemical weapons under a deal reached last year which averted Western military strikes, after a sarin gas attack on rebel-held suburbs around the Syrian capital in August. But it has missed several deadlines to ship out the toxins — the last of which was April 27 — and has told the international mission overseeing the operation that one remaining chemical site remains difficult to reach because of the fighting.

Assad’s Western foes suspect him of deliberately dragging out the process, but a rebel advance east of Damascus suggests there are genuine obstacles to getting the chemicals out.

Syria’s 3-year-old conflict has killed more than 150,000 people, activists say. More than 2.5 million people have fled the violence to find shelter in neighboring countries, while millions more are displaced within the country. Agencies

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