BEIRUT (AP) — The final batch of opposition fighters and their families began leaving a besieged neighborhood in the central city of Homs Saturday, a move that will bring the country’s third largest city under full government control for the first time in years.
Syrian state TV and an opposition monitoring group said that evacuations of the last batch began leaving Saturday and will likely end later in the day. Syria’s State news agency SANA said that about 400 people, including 103 gunmen, left the al-Waer neighborhood heading toward the northern town of Jarablous that borders Turkey.
When the evacuation of rebels from al-Waer ends, it will bring the city under full government control for the first time in more than five years. Government forces in recent years captured one Homs neighborhood after another, until opposition fighters were isolated in al-Waer; the siege of the district began in 2013.
Homs governor Talal Barrazi said that once al-Waer is free of rebels, Syrian government forces will enter.
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The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 12,000 people were meant to be evacuated from al-Waer. But that the figure has exceeded 20,000 as many fear that their sons will be drafted into the army if they stay.
The Observatory says Russian military police have already begun entering parts of al-Waer.
The evacuations in Homs came as Turkey’s official media said Ankara has stepped up its training program for rebels known as the Free Syrian Army, a militia that has fought alongside Turkish forces against the Islamic State group and U.S.-backed Kurdish rebels.
Turkey has vowed to battle Kurdish militants in Syria and Iraq if necessary. The state-run Anadolu news agency reported that Turkish special forces are training larger Free Syrian Army groups.
The agency quoted an unidentified military official saying, “It’s no longer the old FSA in the field but a new FSA being born. These FSA members in training will show their difference in possible future operations.”
Ankara sent ground troops into northern Syria in August to help Syrian opposition forces drive Islamic State militants from the border and curb the advance of Kurdish forces.
In eastern Syria, IS fighters took advantage of a dust storm in the province of Deir el-Zour, storming a village controlled by a U.S-backed Kurdish-led force where they killed at least eight people and kidnapped more than a dozen.
The Syrian Democratic Forces have been on the offensive against IS in northern and eastern Syria for months and are now marching toward the extremists’ de-facto capital of Raqqa. The extremists have repeatedly hit back with attacks on villages and towns controlled by the SDF and other opponents.
The Observatory said IS fighters entered the village of Jazaret al-Bushams on Friday afternoon, killed 19 civilians and kidnapped others. Omar Abu Laila, a Europe-based opposition activist from Deir el-Zour, said the extremists killed eight and kidnapped 13.