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Homs rebel puts fate in Syrian government hands

Civilians wait to be evacuated from a besieged area of Homs February 12, 2014. REUTERS/Thaer Al Khalidiya
Civilians wait to be evacuated from a besieged area of Homs February 12, 2014. REUTERS/Thaer Al Khalidiya

HOMS, Syria (Reuters) - Waiting among a group of evacuees from Homs for questioning by Syrian security forces, Hodwan al-Masri knew he could not hide his identity.

"I am a known brigade commander, with my face all over social media," he said.

Masri left the besieged city during a week-old humanitarian ceasefire in the hope of persuading the authorities to let him go into exile, fully aware he was surrendering his fate to the very people he had been fighting and faced an uncertain future.

"All I need is 48 hours and I'll be out of the country. I hope they let me go. I hope the U.N., or anyone else, can guarantee me that."

His choice points to a sense of defeat among some of the rebels battling to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad for the last three years, particularly in central Syria where pro-government forces are pressing an offensive to regain control.

The ceasefire for Homs, the only tangible result of a three-week-old peace process in Geneva between the government and opposition, has meant women and children have been able to move out freely through government lines around the Old City.

But males between 15 and 55 years old - of military age according to the Syrian authorities - have been held in a school the evacuees were taken to on their way out, for screening, raising fears they may be imprisoned, tortured or killed.

"We are very concerned about the fate of these men and boys once they leave the facility," the U.N. refugee agency's chief spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said on Friday. Of 412 people in the school, 381 were men and boys, she said, and 170 had left.

"We are limited in the extent that we can follow up. We are consistently calling on the government to respect International Humanitarian and Human Rights law."

Masri was hoping to join his children in neighboring Jordan. "Now I hear not everyone is released ... I don't know what to expect," he said late on Wednesday.

"If they ask why I took up arms, I'll tell them that four of my brothers were martyred before I did so."

As men from Homs, some with blankets draped over their soldiers, waited to be sent off for questioning, the city's governor Talal al-Barazi addressed them over loud speakers, saying they had nothing to fear.

"Be patient with us for a couple of days until this process is over. You're in the embrace of the state. You're all our children," he said.

"Are you afraid of anything? Did the police scare you?" he asked. "No" the men answered in unison, while their facial expressions suggested otherwise.

DIPLOMATIC DEADLOCK

Barazi said the ceasefire had been extended on Thursday for three more days to let out more civilians. It was unclear how much longer it would last; a second round of peace talks entered their final day on Friday with clear signs of deadlock between the United States, which backs the opposition, and Assad's leading ally Russia.

Homs is one of the Syrian cities where the uprising against Assad first turned into an armed insurgency and has faced near-daily bombardment by his forces since then.

Some soldiers swore at men getting off a bus that had ferried them out of the Old City, convinced that they were part of the rebel force.

Some of the soldiers tried to take the men's pictures with mobile phones, drawing a rebuke from Barazi who told them to stop.

The governor told Reuters on Thursday that 220 of 1,400 people evacuated in the last week were still being held for security checks. Seventy had been cleared for release on Thursday after 111 were released earlier in the week, he said.

Those released first salute the Syrian flag and then pledge allegiance to the state.

As they waited to be sent off for questioning, many of the Homs evacuees asked anyone nearby what would happen next. Ranging from very haggard to reasonably well turned out, some were yawning and appeared listless.

"Oh come on, you really think they are going to let us get away with it?" one evacuee said to another. "You think they're going to just let us be and forget about it?"

The man next to him said: "No of course not. We all know that."

U.S. State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez said the government had pledged to release men after they had been screened. "We expect them to keep that pledge," he said.

"Given the regime's past actions, the international community cannot take this for granted and needs to monitor the fate of these men," he added in a statement late on Wednesday.

"YOU'VE SOLD OUT HOMS!"

According to evacuees speaking on Wednesday, about 1,500 rebels remained inside the besieged area of Old Homs, along with about a thousand civilians.

One evacuee, a man in his early 20s, described tension between fighters and civilians who decided to stay behind and others who had decided to leave. "On our way out they shouted at us, saying: 'You've sold out Homs!'", he said.

Another blamed the rebels for the fact he hadn't left sooner, saying they had told him he'd be killed by the army if he did. He also accused the rebels of hoarding food.

Apart from Masri, none of those waiting for questioning admitted to being fighters.

Barazi, the governor, told them: "Those who have broken the law will answer to the law. But if you come to the state and say 'I've made a mistake, I was wrong', then that is it. It'll be over. Don't worry."

Speaking quietly, one man said: "We really hope these words are true."

The Syrian authorities term the screening process as "situation settlement", or normalization. The stated aim of the process is the rehabilitation or prosecution of rebels by the state.

One soldier, asked whether he could forgive rebel combatants, pulled out his cell phone to show a photo of a young man. "See this guy? He was my friend. They killed him. A bullet through the head," he said. "It was them. One of them," he said, pointing to the evacuees.

"But if normalization means we put down our weapons and go back to the way things were, then I'm good with that."

Asked the same question, a senior officer gave a less clear cut answer: "Come back in a couple of months and see for yourself."

(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam in Beirut and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; writing by Tom Perry in Beirut; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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