Truce agreement looms on horizon in Homs
DAMASCUS - Talks for rebels to withdraw from a handful of besieged neighbourhoods in Syria's Homs city have entered their final phase, regime and rebel representatives said Saturday, a day after a ceasefire began.
Homs was dubbed the "capital of the revolution" at the start of the 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
A pull-out would mean the regime has regained complete control of it after a two-year siege.
A ceasefire began on Friday, as a first step toward implementing a deal between the two sides.
Talks, which began two months ago, are near completion, according to Governor Talal al-Barazi and rebel representative and negotiator Abul Harith al-Khalidi.
"The ceasefire is still in place, and I hope we will reach the end of the negotiations. Talks to rid the city of arms and of armed men ... are ongoing and we are near the end," said Barazi.
Abul Harith said "we have now entered a new phase in the talks."
He said they are being held in tandem with negotiations to free a group of pro-regime Iranian officers held by rebels in the northern city of Aleppo.
Such a deal, which would be in exchange for guarantees of safe passage for the Homs fighters, "is a way to put pressure on the regime."
Abul Harith said "we want to stop this bloodbath," adding that all rebel groups, including the jihadist Al-Nusra Front, had given him permission to negotiate the withdrawal.
Earlier, Barazi had said Al-Nusra, the official Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, opposed the truce.
Homs is Syria's third city and is strategically located in the heart of the country.
Only a handful of neighbourhoods surrounding the historic and now destroyed Old City remain in rebel hands, after a series of massive army offensives starting in February 2012.
Barazi said the deal "will be applied first in the Old City, then in Waer. The goal is to reach a peaceful solution that brings back security and government institutions".
The vast majority of some 1,500 people still trapped in the Old City are fighters, but Waer is home to hundreds of thousands of civilians, many of them displaced from fallen rebel bastions.
A string of towns, also besieged, remain in rebel control in the Homs provincial countryside, to which some of the fighters want to be evacuated.
Elsewhere in Syria, mortar fire hit a bus in Damascus, killing three people and wounding three others, state news agency SANA said.
East of Damascus, an army source said troops have advanced in Mleiha, a rebel bastion that has been under sustained bombardment for several weeks.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the toll from Thursday's explosions targeting two Alawite villages has risen to 29, including 14 children.
More than 150,000 people have been killed in Syria's war, and nearly half the population forced to flee their homes.