• A file picture taken on January 27, 2014, shows Opposition fighters carrying a rocket launcher during clashes against government forces in the Sheikh Lutfi area, west of the airport in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. (AAP)
An operation to evacuate around 2,000 fighters and civilians from rebel-held areas of the flashpoint Syrian city of Homs started on Wednesday, a rebel negotiator said.
7 May 2014 - 9:01 PM  UPDATED 8 May 2014 - 8:27 AM

The evacuation of rebel-held parts of Syria's Homs has begun under an unprecedented deal that hands back control to the government weeks before the presidential election.

After nearly two years of government siege, on Wednesday weary civilians and rebel forces made their way out of the shelled-out ruins of the Old City and surrounding areas on buses taking them to opposition-held territory to the north.

The deal involved the release of dozens of civilians and fighters held by rebels in the northern province of Aleppo and in Latakia province, on the Mediterranean coast, including women and children, sources said.
The operation effectively turns over the city once dubbed the "capital of the revolution" to government control ahead of a controversial June 3 election expected to return President Bashar al-Assad to office.

The evacuation began at about 10am local time, with three buses carrying civilians and fighters, some of them wounded, departing from the devastated Old City.

Videos posted online showed a group of fighters, some with their faces covered, walking towards green buses.
They carried backpacks and light weapons as they boarded the buses, which were accompanied by a white UN vehicle, under the gaze of regime police.
By sunset about 600 of the approximately 1200 people believed to be in the Old City had left, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.
Governor Talal al-Barazi and activists in Homs province told AFP the operation wouldcontinue Thursday.
Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said the withdrawal was "a propaganda victory for the regime, because Homs holds a symbolic place in the Syrian revolution".

He said "the resistance (put up the rebels) was legendary, despite two years of siege, and in spite of this, the international community did nothing".

The city of some 800,000 people was one of the first to rise up against Assad's rule in March 2011, prompting activists to dub it the "capital of the revolution".