Regime retakes full control of central Syria as rebels evacuate

Rastan (Syria) (AFP) –


The Syrian government retook full control of central Syria on Wednesday as rebels and their relatives were evacuated from final pockets of territory still outside the regime's grasp, an AFP correspondent reported.

The evacuations from areas straddling the boundary between Homs and Hama provinces came under a deal between rebel factions and the government.

Hundreds of people gathered in the centre of the town of Rastan in Homs province to welcome the return of government security forces and attend a flag-raising ceremony on the main square.

Nearby towns and villages in the areas of Talbiseh and Al-Hula were also evacuated, the official SANA news agency and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor reported.

"The last convoy of terrorists and their families exits northern Homs province and southern Hama province," SANA reported.

The armed factions, which the government systematically refers to as "terrorists", were transferred to Idlib province, which still largely escapes regime control.

A total of 34,500 people -- armed men and their families -- were transferred out of the area as part of the deal, according to the Britain-based Observatory.

"As of today, there is not one gunman left, no weapons left in the whole of Homs province," the province's governor, Talal Barazai, told AFP in Rastan.

Pockets of jihadists from the Islamic State group are however still thought to be active on the province's scarcely-populated far eastern edge.

The governor vowed that the Damascus-Hama highway would reopen "in the coming days".

With Iranian and Russian support, the Syrian government has reconquered swathes of territory it lost following the outbreak of the conflict in 2011.

Government and allied forces have almost finished retaking areas around the capital Damascus that had been held by jihadist and Islamist groups for year.

They have yet to seize back a small pocket still controlled by IS in southern Damascus, as well as a large part of the southern Daraa province and much of Idlib, in the northwest.

A large part of northern and eastern Syria is controlled by US-backed Kurdish forces who also fought against IS but want a level of autonomy that the regime refuses.

More than half of Syria 20-million-plus pre-war population has been displaced by the seven-year-old conflict, which the Observatory says has killed more than 350,000 people.