Over 30 killed in key Syrian city as ceasefire deal kicks off

Fire engines at the site of two car bomb attacks in the Al-Zahraa neighbourhood in Homs yesterday. The attack came less than three weeks after the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militant group claimed responsibility for explosions in the same neighb
Fire engines at the site of two car bomb attacks in the Al-Zahraa neighbourhood in Homs yesterday. The attack came less than three weeks after the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militant group claimed responsibility for explosions in the same neighbourhood that left 16 people dead.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Homs blasts occur as hundreds evacuate 3 cities, as part of deal between warring factions

BEIRUT • A rare United Nations- backed deal between Syria's warring sides saw hundreds of fighters and civilians evacuate three towns, as bomb blasts in the city of Homs, which is under the control of President Bashar al-Assad's forces, killed at least 32 people.

Mr Assad's regime has agreed to several ceasefires with rebel groups in the past but yesterday's evacuation plan was one of the most elaborate since the war started nearly five years ago.

The United Nations has been pushing for such local deals to try and resolve a conflict that has left more than 250,000 dead, and forced millions from their homes.

More than 450 fighters and civilians, including the wounded, began leaving three flashpoint areas in Syria as part of a six-month truce reached in September. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) monitoring group, more than 120 fighters and wounded began leaving Zabadani - the last rebel bastion along Syria's border with Lebanon yesterday.

They were expected to travel across the border to Lebanon, and fly from Beirut to Turkey before travelling back into opposition-held areas in Syria, SOHR head Rami Abdul-Rahman said.

It is the first time the neighbouring countries are involved in such an evacuation deal. The next part of the deal, the Britain-based SOHR said, would be to deliver humanitarian aid to the towns.

Mr Abdul-Rahman said Mr Assad's regime was keen to reach such agreements as part of its "efforts to secure the capital by seizing control of rebel-held areas or through ceasefire deals".

Government figures and local leaders reached a deal last week to evacuate thousands of militants and civilians from southern Damascus, but the agreement was derailed after the death of rebel chief Zahran Alloush on Friday.

In one of the most significant such deals so far, anti-government rebels earlier this month quit the last opposition-held district of the central city of Homs, once dubbed "the capital of the revolution". But violence has since rocked the city.

Yesterday, at least 32 people were killed and dozens wounded after several bomb blasts in the city's Al-Zahraa neighbourhood, state television reported.

It said two explosions caused by car bombs and a blast caused by a suicide attacker wearing an explosives-laden belt hit Al-Zahraa's main square.

"These terrorist, cowardly, and desperate attacks come in response to the growing spirit of national reconciliation throughout Syria," Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi said in comments carried by state news agency Sana.

The attack came less than three weeks after the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militant group claimed responsibility for explosions in the same neighbourhood that left 16 people dead.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 29, 2015, with the headline 'Over 30 killed in key Syrian city as ceasefire deal kicks off'. Print Edition | Subscribe