BEIRUT (AP) — The planned evacuation of fighters from rebel-held parts of the Syrian city of Homs was delayed Saturday, activists said, though a cease-fire still was holding in the country’s third-largest city.
Rebels in the city agreed Friday to surrender the territory in exchange for safe passage to other opposition-held areas. The agreement came after a blockade by Syrian President Bashar 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.
As pro-government forces have advanced, rebels have responded by firing mortar shells and detonating car bombs in residential areas, often killing civilians.
On Saturday, as Assad forces advanced into Mleeha, a suicide bomber detonated a car bomb at a checkpoint, causing casualties, state-run television said, without elaborating.
Rebels also fired mortars into a government-held neighborhood in Aleppo, killing at least 12 people.
Activists also said that the death toll from two car bombs that struck two small villages in the central Syrian province of Hama has risen to 23 people, including 14 children.
Rami Abdurrahman of The Observatory said Saturday that the figure was likely to rise further. The bombs exploded Friday in the villages of Jadreen and Humayri, some 19 kilometers (11 miles) apart. It wasn’t clear if the two attacks were coordinated. The Observatory obtains its information from a network of activists on the ground.
State-run Syrian television also reported the bombings Friday.
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.