Women and children get on a bus to evacuate the al-Waer neighborhood in Syria's central city of Homs toward rebel-held areas in northern Syria, on May 20, 2017. Rebels and their families have been evacuating their last remaining stronghold of al-Waer in Homs since March, with the last batch is leaving that neighborhood on Saturday. Since March, 10 batches of rebels and their relatives have left al-Waer, with the total number of evacuees estimated at 18,000 people, including rebels and civilians. (Xinhua/Hummam Sheikh Ali)
by Hummam Sheikh Ali
HOMS, Syria, May 20 (Xinhua) -- The last batch of rebels and their families started Saturday evacuating the al-Waer neighborhood, the last rebel stronghold in the central city of Homs.
Busses are on standby at the entrance of al-Waer to transport the last batch of rebels and their families toward rebel-held areas in northern Syria.
Government officials said the last stage of evacuation will finish later on Saturday, as the government institutions are expected to enter the neighborhood on Sunday, if the process goes smoothly without snags.
The rebels and their families as well as sympathizers have been evacuating the al-Waer neighborhood in batches toward rebel-held areas in the northwestern province of Idlib as well as the northern province of Aleppo since March of this year.
The evacuation comes following a deal struck with the government to grant them safe passage toward rebel-held areas in northern Syria in 2015.
Several hurdles faced the full implementation of the deal before its reactivation last March.
Since March, 12 batches of rebels and their relatives have left al-Waer, with the total number of evacuees estimated at over 17,000, 7,000 of whom were rebels, according to the state TV.
Still, Talal Brazi, the governor of Homs, told reporters at the entrance of al-Waer on Saturday that 12,000 is the overall number, adding that thousands of civilians returned after reaching their destination in northern Syria, due to the tough situation in the camps in rebel-held areas.
Barazi said that as of Sunday, the residents of al-Waer, who fled the neighborhood in 2012 when the rebels took over, will be able to return to their homes.
He said the evacuation of the last batch is ongoing through Saturday and could extend to early hours Sunday.
Al-Waer is a sprawling neighborhood in Homs.
Previous statistics indicated that al-Wair used to home 300,000 people before the six-year-old war erupted in Syria, and that the number then decreased down to 75,000 civilians remaining in al-Waer, which has been besieged by government forces since 2014.
For the government, regaining the neighborhood is a significant progress which will enable them to regain full control of Homs, Syria's third largest city.
It's also the heart of Syria due to its location in the central part of the country.
Homs is also one of Syria's most important industrial centers, boasting the country's largest oil refinery and key oil and gas fields in its eastern countryside.
The city is also a hub connecting major Syrian cities together, and gaining full control over the city will be an important step for the government to have full control over Syria's other major five cities of Damascus, Homs, Latakia, Aleppo and Hama.
For the rebels, losing their last stronghold in Homs is a major blow, following the huge defeat they suffered when government forces recaptured the entire city of Aleppo in December of last year, after the rebels' evacuation from the eastern part of that key city in northern Syria.
Rebels called Homs the "Capital of Revolution," as it was one of the first cities to join the anti-government movement in Syria in mid-March 2011.
By mid 2012, up to a fifth of the city was under control of the opposition.
In the same year, government forces unleashed an offensive to capture the fallen areas.
In late 2014, rebels in the old city of Homs accepted a deal for their evacuation from the city, which has been largely obliterated due to the military campaign in the city.
In 2015, the deal for al-Waer was reached, similar to that of the old city, before being reactivated on March 14, 2017.
Following the full evacuation of the rebels from al-Waer, government efforts will focus on achieving similar deals in the northern countryside of Homs, where rebels still hold some areas.