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Cease-fire, evacuation agreed in Syria's Homs

HOMS, Syria - Isolated and battered after months of bombardment and blockades, Syrian rebels agreed Friday to a cease-fire that would allow hundreds of fighters to evacuate their last bastions in Homs, handing over to President Bashar Assad's forces a strategic but largely destroyed city once hailed as the capital of the revolution.

The deal reached on Homs, Syria's third-largest city, follows a series of military gains by the regime around the capital, Damascus, and in the country's vital center.

"It will certainly mark a new chapter for the regime, a chapter where it's regaining control of the country," said Ayham Kamel, an analyst with the Eurasia group in London.

A government seizure of Homs would be "the icing on the cake for Assad," said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at Brookings Doha Center.

Although the agreement, if it holds, represents a demoralizing admission of defeat by opposition forces, it can also be seen as a face-saving deal for both sides. Weakened rebels, for whom Homs' collapse was only a matter of time, get a safe exit, while the government can save manpower and weapons and claim it was able to retake the last rebel bastions without blood.

The Syrian government can now declare a victory of sorts by claiming control over two of the country's largest cities - Homs and Damascus - as well as the Mediterranean coast, Assad's ancestral heartland. But Assad has lost control over large swaths of territory, particularly in the north, and continues to rule over a divided country with a raging insurgency. Syrian officials have scheduled elections for June 3 but say balloting will not take place in rebel-held areas.

The 48-hour cease-fire deal, reported by opposition activists and pro-government TV stations, came after heavy airstrikes and artillery bombardment of rebel-held areas intensified in recent weeks. In a sign the truce was taking hold, an Associated Press team in Homs on Friday reported that the city was unusually quiet, with no shots fired from either side.

The bloodstained city in the central western plains of Syria was among the first to rise up against the president. Early on, residents tried to recreate the fervor of Egypt's Tahrir Square with waves of anti-Assad protests, only to face siege upon siege by government forces. Homs became a battleground that left entire blocks and much of its historic quarters in ruins with collapsed walls and scorched buildings.

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