People gather at the site of one of two car-bomb explosions in the pro-government district of al-Zahra in Homs on April 29. (Syrian Arab News Agency via AP)

Syrian rebels began to evacuate their last footholds in the central city of Homs on Wednesday, departing under a deal loaded with poignancy for the opposition.

Hundreds of rebels boarded buses for the countryside north of the city after being allowed safe exit in an agreement confirmed by both sides. Each fighter was allowed to carry one weapon and a bag of belongings.

In return, rebels said, they agreed to allow aid into two pro-government towns they had besieged for more than a year and to hand over prisoners.

Rebel forces have been steadily squeezed into an ever-shrinking patch of land in the Old City of Homs.

The streets where some of the biggest protests against President Bashar al-Assad were once held have been pummeled by artillery and airstrikes. Meanwhile, residents and rebel fighters have faced near-starvation under a tight government siege.

“Homs is the capital of the revolution,” said Faisal Shareef, an activist in the city, describing as “painful” the evacuation of an area that so many rebels had died defending.

“But the martyrs did not shed their blood for nothing,” Shareef said. “There is always a message and a goal. It was an attempt for liberation and dignity. They lost the battle, but it’s not the end of the war.”

In contrast to the rebels’ despondency, Talal Barazi, the governor of Homs province, told the pro-government al-Watan newspaper that “the situation is positive and calls for high spirits.”

The truce will allow the Old City “to return to being a safe and stable area, free from weapons and armed men,” Barazi said.

The deal to pacify a longtime opposition bastion adds wind to the sails of the government just weeks ahead of Syria’s presidential election. In a statement, the Friends of Syria group of countries, which includes the United States, dismissed the election as a “parody of democracy.” Assad is running for a third seven-year term.

The government has been slowly regaining its grip on central Syria. The evacuations Wednesday follow similar cease-fires in the suburbs of the capital, Damascus, that resulted from what the opposition described as “starve or surrender” tactics by the government.

As rebels suffered the humiliating withdrawal in Homs, Ahmad al-Jarba, the leader of the main Syrian Opposition Coalition, pleaded for antiaircraft weapons during a visit to Washington, where he is expected to meet President Obama.

Rebel fighters, outgunned and running low on food, had been trying to negotiate a safe exit from Homs for months. However, the delicate talks were stymied by demands on both sides and faced vehement opposition from pro-government militias.

After talks broke down last month and the government stepped up its bombardment of the city, the opposition pleaded for a safe exit for the fighters.

About 600 rebels had left the city by the end of the day, activists said Wednesday, with evacuations expected to continue Thursday. They said that even hard-line fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra, a rebel group affiliated with al-
Qaeda, had agreed to the deal.

Before the agreement, most estimates put the number of people in the Old City of Homs at 1,200. About 1,400 were evacuated as part of a U.N.-brokered cease-fire in February.

At the time, evacuees spoke of scavenging for food in abandoned houses and eating weeds to survive.

Although that deal covered only women, children and the elderly, hundreds of men of fighting age also chose to hand themselves over, broken by the brutality of the siege.

Most of the 240,000 people the United Nations estimates are living under siege are suffering at the hands of government blockades, but rebels also have used siege tactics.

For more than a year, rebels have cut off Nobul and Zahra, two Shiite towns a few miles north of the city of Aleppo. Activists said the Homs evacuation was temporarily halted Wednesday after the Islamic Front, a powerful rebel alliance, blocked agreed-on aid from reaching the towns.

The truce also stipulated the release of a Russian military officer, dozens of pro-government fighters and an Iranian woman being held by rebel fighters, according to activists.

Videos posted online showed rebels arriving in green coaches in opposition-held rural areas north of Homs. Under the deal, which stipulates that the evacuations be overseen by the United Nations, rebels are assured safe passage to the towns of Talbiseh and al-Dar al-Kabira, a short car journey from the city.

Ahmed Ramadan contributed to this report.