Syria begins evacuating civilians trapped in Homs
A man waves behind the window of a bus on February 7, 2014, during the evacuation of civilians from the rebel-held areas of the Syrian city of Homs. [AFP]
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The Syrian government began evacuating civilians from the besieged city of Homs on Friday, executing the first stage of a deal struck with the United Nations in a three-day ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid to enter the city.
Three busloads of civilians were moved from rebel-held parts of Homs, accompanied by Syrian Arab Red Crescent officials, Reuters reported.
The first two busses carried at least 35 women, children and elderly men, and arrived at a meeting point outside the city.
Activists frequently report severe food and medical shortages, with some 3,000 people -- including 1,200 women, children, and elderly people -- trapped there, surviving on little more than grass and olives.
Homs has long been a key flashpoint. Early in the uprising which broke out in March 2011, thousands of people protested regularly in the city center.
Then starting early 2012, the army launched a string of massive offensives aimed at recapturing rebel areas of Syria's third city.
In February 2012, the Baba Amr district was bombarded using tanks, helicopters, mortars and rockets, killing hundreds of people. The neighbourhood fell to army control on March 1.
The attacks cost the lives of American war reporter Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik on Feb. 22, when a building that served as a makeshift media center was struck by an army shell.
The army then took back other neighborhoods, including Bayada and Inshaat. In summer 2013, the army captured rebel bastion Khaldiyeh.
AFP journalists who visited Khaldiyeh said it had suffered enormous destruction because of the daily bombings and battles.
Low-precision barrel bombs that thrown from helicopters often fall on residential areas, destroying many districts and forcing most the population to flee.
The shrine of the historic Khalid Bin Walid mosque, located in the ravaged neighborhood, was destroyed in shelling shortly before the army stormed the district, according to AFP.
Assad's regime has long claimed that Syria's revolt was a foreign-backed "terrorist" plot, while rights groups have accused it of using heavy weaponry, including the air force, to target rebel neighbourhoods indiscriminately.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says there are no buildings safe enough to inhabit in the areas still under rebel control, while communications, electricity and water have been cut off for months.
But the rebel neighbourhoods are only a tiny fraction of Homs city. Much of the rest is in government hands.
With Damascus the political capital and the northern city of Aleppo the main commercial hub, Homs is a major industrial center in the center and was once home to some 1.6 million people.
It is the provincial capital of Homs province, the largest and most strategic in the country, lying on key trade routes near the borders with Lebanon and Iraq.
Homs also sits on a fault-line of sectarian tensions within Syria. Mainly divided along confessional lines, Sunni, Alawite, Christian and mixed neighborhoods have co-existed uneasily.
Sunnis consider themselves to be the true natives of the city and never took kindly to the mass influx of Alawites -- members of a Shiite sect to which Assad also belongs -- to Homs and its surrounding districts since the late 1960s.
Recent international efforts to bring the warring parties to form a transitional authority and end hostilities failed in last month.