DAMASCUS, May 7 (Xinhua) -- A total of 968 rebels have evacuated from the old city of Syria's central province of Homs on Wednesday, as part of a deal concluded recently between the Syrian government troops and the armed militant groups, local media reported.
The 968 armed rebels left Homs, which has been besieged by government troops for two years, for the rebel-held towns of al- Dar, al-Kabira and Talbiseh in the northern countryside of Homs. The second batch of rebels are expected to evacuate from Homs on Thursday.
Under the deal, 1,200 rebels holed up in that besieged part of Homs are set to abandon their positions in the Jouret al-Shaiyah, Qarabis, Qusur, Hamidiyeh, and Wadi al-Sayeh neighborhoods in old Homs, reports said. Some 300 civilians, apparently families of the rebel fighters, are also set to leave the city alongside them.
In exchange, the rebels agreed to break their siege on the pro- government towns of Nubul and Zahra in the northern province of Aleppo to allow in relief aid convoys, and to release government- loyal people and soldiers they had kidnapped before.
The armed militant groups on Wednesday released 15 kidnapped men from the Bustan al-Qaser area in Aleppo, the state news agency SANA said.
Following the evacuation, Syrian army forces will enter old Homs and dismantle roadside bombs and sand barriers, SANA said, adding that the army forces will take over the rebels' heavy weaponry, allowing them to leave with light weapons only.
After the full evacuation, the entire city of Homs would be under government control except the al-Waer neighborhood, whose rebels have rejected to join the deal.
Yet, local media said efforts are still being exerted to conclude a similar deal with the rebels in al-Waer.
The ceasefire and the rebels' evacuation could be considered the latest victory of the Syrian army in Homs. However, most areas of the northern countryside of Homs are still under the rebels' control, namely Talbiseh, Rastan and al-Dar al-Kabira.
Homs, Syria's third largest province, was one of the first provinces to sympathize with an anti-government movement in Syria. The rebels there took considerable swathes of land, but government troops have stripped them of their territory over the past year.
Fully securing Homs is crucial for the administration of President Bashar al-Assad ahead of the June 3 presidential elections, because of the strategic location of Homs in central Syria and on the international road that connects the capital Damascus with the central and northern region.
The Syrian crisis started in mid-March 2011 when anti- government protesters took to the streets calling for reforms. But it rapidly evolved into a civil war that has so far killed more than 150,000 people and displaced about one third of Syria's population.