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Mar 27, 5:41 AM EDT

More Syrian rebels, families leave city of Homs under deal



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BEIRUT (AP) -- Another group of Syrian rebels with their families on Monday began leaving the last opposition-held neighborhood in the central city of Homs under a Russia-brokered deal with the Damascus government, state TV and the province's governor said.

The government has denied that the Homs deal - and other similar voluntary displacements in besieged areas in Syria over the past year - forces resident to leave and effectively surrender their territory.

But some opposition activists have criticized the agreement, saying it aims to displace 12,000 al-Waer residents, including 2,500 fighters. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has called the evacuees "internally displaced" people.

Syrian state TV said the latest round of evacuations from Hom's al-Waer neighborhood is the second one so far, with about 728 people involved - 254 of them fighters.

"Matters are moving smoothly and there are no obstacles," Homs governor Talal Barrazi told The Associated Press by telephone. Initially, the evacuation was planned to take place on Saturday but no reason was given for the delay.

Opposition fighters agreed to leave al-Waer after years of siege and bombardment at the hands of pro-government forces. They were guaranteed safe passage to rebel-held parts of northern Syria.

The evacuations are expected to last weeks, after which the government will be able to claim control over the entire city for the first time in years.

Elsewhere in Syria, U.S.-backed opposition forces on Sunday captured a strategically important air base from Islamic State militants in the northern province of Raqqa in a major victory since the United States airlifted the forces behind enemy lines last week.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces announced they had captured the Tabqa air base, 45 kilometers (28 miles) west of Raqqa, the Islamic State group's de facto capital in Syria.

The U.S., which has provided substantial air and ground support to the SDF, ferried hundreds of SDF forces, as well as U.S. military advisers and U.S. artillery, behind IS lines earlier this week.

On Monday, IS fighters detonated a car bomb on the southern edge of the air base in Raqqa province but it was not clear if it inflicted casualties among SDF fighters, the activist collective Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently and the Observatory reported.

Fighting is ongoing in areas near the air base, both activist groups said.

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Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.

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