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Tentative cease-fire in Syrian city of Homs ahead of rebel evacuation, a victory for Assad

FILE - This file photo released on Thursday Nov. 29, 2012 by the anti-government activist group Homs City Union of The Syrian Revolution, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Syrian citizens walking in a destroyed street that was attacked by Syrian forces warplanes, at Abu al-Hol street in Homs province, Syria. Syria's government and rebels agreed to a ceasefire on Friday, May 2, 2014 in the battleground city of Homs to allow hundreds of fighters holed up in its old quarters to evacuate, a deal that will bring the country's third-largest city under control of forces loyal to President Bashar Assad. (AP Photo/Homs City Union of The Syrian Revolution, File)

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FILE - This file photo released on Thursday Nov. 29, 2012 by the anti-government activist group Homs City Union of The Syrian Revolution, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Syrian citizens walking in a destroyed street that was attacked by Syrian forces warplanes, at Abu al-Hol street in Homs province, Syria. Syria's government and rebels agreed to a ceasefire on Friday, May 2, 2014 in the battleground city of Homs to allow hundreds of fighters holed up in its old quarters to evacuate, a deal that will bring the country's third-largest city under control of forces loyal to President Bashar Assad. (AP Photo/Homs City Union of The Syrian Revolution, File)

HOMS, Syria - Isolated and battered after months of bombardment and blockades, Syrian rebels agreed Friday to a cease-fire that would allow hundreds of fighters to evacuate their last bastions in Homs, handing over to President Bashar Assad's forces a strategic but largely destroyed city once hailed as the capital of the revolution.

The deal reached on Homs, Syria's third-largest city, follows a series of military gains by the regime around the capital, Damascus, and in the country's vital centre.

"It will certainly mark a new chapter for the regime, a chapter where it's regaining control of the country," said Ayham Kamel, an analyst with the Eurasia group in London.

A government seizure of Homs would be "the icing on the cake for Assad," said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at Brookings Doha Center.

Although the agreement, if it holds, represents a demoralizing admission of defeat by opposition forces, it can also be seen as a face-saving deal for both sides. Weakened rebels, for whom Homs' collapse was only a matter of time, get a safe exit, while the government can save manpower and weapons and claim it was able to retake the last rebel bastions without blood.

The Syrian government can now declare a victory of sorts by claiming control over two of the country's largest cities — Homs and Damascus — as well as the Mediterranean coast, Assad's ancestral heartland. But Assad has lost control over large swaths of territory, particularly in the north, and continues to rule over a divided country with a raging insurgency. Syrian officials have scheduled elections for June 3 but say balloting will not take place in rebel-held areas.

The 48-hour cease-fire deal, reported by opposition activists and pro-government TV stations, came after heavy airstrikes and artillery bombardment of rebel-held areas intensified in recent weeks. In a sign the truce was taking hold, an Associated Press team in Homs on Friday reported that the city was unusually quiet, with no shots fired from either side.

The bloodstained city in the central western plains of Syria was among the first to rise up against the president. Early on, residents tried to recreate the fervour of Egypt's Tahrir Square with waves of anti-Assad protests, only to face siege upon siege by government forces. Homs became a battleground that left entire blocks and much of its historic quarters in ruins with collapsed walls and scorched buildings.

One Homs-based opposition activist said it was a bitter moment for rebels barricaded in 13 neighbourhoods around the city's historic centre.

"This isn't what we wanted, but it's all we could get," Beibars Tilawi told The Associated Press in a Skype interview. "The regime wanted to take control of the heart of the revolution."

There was no immediate comment by Syrian officials.

Homs, 80 miles (130 kilometres) north of Damascus with a pre-war population of around 1.2 million, is particularly important for its central location. It links the capital with Aleppo in the north — the country's largest city and another key battleground.

For more than a year, government troops have blockaded rebels inside a string of districts spread over some eight miles (13 kilometres), causing widespread hunger and weakening the fighters.

Equally troublesome for the rebels, their supply lines were squeezed as government troops scored military victories near Damascus and the Lebanon border. Hundreds of fighters have surrendered to Assad-loyal forces in recent months, activists said.

But a hardcore group in Homs remained fighting, dispatching explosive-rigged cars into government-controlled districts, killing dozens of people, mostly civilians. On Tuesday, a double car bombing killed over 50 people.

Lister, the analyst, said the bombings represented "a last gasp attempt at imposing damage on a winning enemy."

Some rebels and activists in Homs have been negotiating a truce for at least two months, but the bulk of the rebels refused to agree until the final, violent push of fighting, activists said.

U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has been pushing for an agreement. The world body also helped oversee the evacuation of hundreds of civilians from Homs' rebel-held neighbourhoods in February.

Activists said the 48-hour truce began Friday, and that some 1,000 rebels belonging to all factions, including the al-Qaida linked Nusra Front, were expected to begin evacuating on Saturday to rebel-held provincial towns north of Homs.

Still, the deal could collapse if there are last-minute disputes over the terms of evacuation and some rebels decide to hold out.

A Syrian opposition figure said some sticking points remained, including whether the rebel-held Waer district just outside the Old City would be included in the deal.

Speaking on condition of anonymity because negotiations were ongoing, he said the government was also demanding that rebels hand over military maps of tunnels and explosives.

In Homs on Friday, Syrian soldiers with machine-guns at checkpoints appeared relaxed. The facades of nearby buildings were battered by shrapnel from mortar fire in recent days.

At the checkpoints, posters of smiling Assad hung off sandbags and makeshift barriers made of truck tires, with the Syrian national flag fluttering overhead.

The skyline of the battle-shattered Waer district resembled a heap of ruins and twisted metal. Several tall buildings are now skeleton structures, destroyed by government heavy artillery a few months ago after rebels reportedly took up positions there and fired on an oil refinery on the outskirts of the city.

Tilawi and other activists cautioned that the deal was extremely fragile.

"We don't trust the regime. If there's any shooting or traps set, the whole thing will fall apart," he said.

Also Friday, two car bombs struck two small pro-government villages in the central Syrian province of Hama, killing 18 people, including 11 children, state-run television said. The villages, Jadreen and Humayri, are about a 20-minute drive apart, and it wasn't immediately clear if the two attacks were co-ordinated.

More than 150,000 people have been killed in Syria's conflict since it began in March 2011.

___

Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid in Beirut and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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