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Deal for Syria rebels to withdraw from Homs bastion

The Syrian government and rebels have reached a deal under which opposition fighters besieged in the central city of Homs will withdraw during a ceasefire, an NGO said on Friday.

DAMASCUS: The Syrian government and rebels have reached a deal under which opposition fighters besieged in the central city of Homs will withdraw during a ceasefire, an NGO said on Friday.

The accord will mean all but one district of the city, once dubbed the "capital of the revolution," will be back in government control.

In Hama province, further north, 20 people, including 12 children were killed in two bombings targeting towns that are majority Alawite, the religious community to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs.

And Al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri called in a new audio recording for the group's Syrian wing to end fighting with the rival jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

In Homs, a ceasefire was in place Friday in the Old City and several neighbouring rebel-held districts, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

"A truce began on Friday in the Old City of Homs and surrounding areas, where there has been fierce fighting between the regime and rebels, with the goal of applying a deal reached between the sides," the Britain-based monitoring group said.

"The deal stipulates a ceasefire and the withdrawal of the rebels in the Old City, which has been under siege for two years, to the north of Homs province.

"As a result of the deal, the army will retake control of these areas," it added.

The deal was confirmed by an activist on the ground in Homs.

"There is a truce agreement with safe exit for the rebels," Thaer al-Khalidiyeh told AFP by Internet, adding that the withdrawal had not yet begun.

The agreement comes after government forces began an assault against the few remaining rebel-held areas in the city last month.

Regime troops have laid siege to the Old City and a few surrounding areas for almost two years, with nearly 3,000 people trapped under blockade as food and medical supplies dwindled.

In February, a UN-Red Crescent operation evacuated around half of those trapped, and several hundred more have left since, leaving around 1,000 fighters still in the rebel-held areas.

If the accord holds and the fighters withdraw, only the neighbourhood of Al-Waer, where many of those fleeing besieged areas of Homs took refuge, will remain under rebel control.

In Hama province meanwhile, state media said 20 people including 12 children were killed in the Alawite towns of Jidrin in the southwest and Al-Humairi in the west.

The deadly attacks, in which suicide bombers blew themselves up in vehicles, came after a double car bombing killed 100 people in an Alawite district of Homs on Tuesday.

This week also saw 33 civilians killed in the main northern city of Aleppo on Thursday when government aircraft bombed a popular market in a rebel-held district.

Despite the violence, the government plans to hold a presidential election next month that is expected to sweep Assad to victory.

It will be the country's first multi-candidate presidential vote, after a constitutional amendment did away with presidential referendums.

Along with Assad, 23 hopefuls have submitted applications to stand, and they will hear on May 6 which of them have met the electoral criteria.

Only Assad and a maximum of two other candidates are expected to secure sufficient backing in parliament to get their names on the ballot.

The government has not explained how it will organise countrywide elections with violence that has killed more than 150,000 people ravaging much of Syria.

Large swathes of the country are beyond government control and the violence has forced nearly half of the population to flee their homes.

Since early January, moderate and Islamist rebels, along with Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, have also been battling against ISIL.

The group has gained notoriety for abuses against both civilians and rival opposition fighters.

ISIL has its roots in Al-Qaeda's Iraq arm, but has since fallen out with the organisation, whose chief has repeatedly called on it to leave Syria and focus on Iraq.

In a recording posted online on Friday, Zawahiri for the first time ordered Al-Nusra's chief Mohammed al-Jolani to end fighting with ISIL.

Zawahiri ordered that "all soldiers of the Front immediately cease fighting" other jihadist groups.

Instead, he urged Jolani to "devote himself to combat the enemies of Islam, specifically Baathists, Shiites and their allies."

The Baath is Syria's ruling party, which is headed by Assad.

Zawahiri also repeated his call for ISIL to leave Syria, urging the group's chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to "devote himself to wounded Iraq, which needs you to redouble your efforts" there.

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