BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian forces say they will take full control on Thursday over Homs, a city once associated with scenes of joyous pro-democracy crowds but now famed for images of ruin that epitomise the brutality of Syria's civil war.
After holding the Old City of Homs for nearly two years, more than 900 rebel fighters, some limping their way onto buses, made their way out of the "capital of the revolution" in several convoys on Wednesday.
They were driven to rebel-held territory outside the city under a deal agreed between the insurgents and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
Homs provincial governor Talal Barazi told state media 80 percent of the fighters had left and the rest would be evacuated on Thursday after which the centre of Homs would be "declared a secure city" and reconstruction would commence.
Rebels smiled to cameras as they left but the fall of Syria's third largest city to government forces is a major blow to the opposition and a boon for Assad weeks before his likely re-election.
When thousands of Syrians took to the streets of Homs in 2011, it electrified the nation and anti-Assad demonstrations erupted in every major city. Government forces cracked down on the religiously-mixed city with batons and live ammunition.
Mortar bombs were fired on protests in Homs and the revolution became armed. Rebel groups spread through the city as civilians fled or cowered in the basements of battered buildings. A year ago, government forces laid siege to the Old City and residents said they starved.
State television broadcast footage on Thursday of a reporter, without body-amour, standing in the rain in the deserted centre of Homs interviewing governor Barazi, who said the remaining fighters would be evacuated in the next few hours.
Behind them, not one building had been spared by the bullets, mortars and bombs of nearly three years of fighting. Some were completely levelled.
The evacuation comes after months of gains by the army, backed by its Lebanese militant ally Hezbollah, along a strategic corridor of territory linking the capital Damascus with Homs and Assad's Alawite heartland on the Mediterranean.
Assad's forces now control most of the capital, along with the main highway from Damascus through to Homs and the western Mediterranean coast. Rebels control much of the desert in the north and east while Syria's second city, Aleppo, is contested.
At the same time as rebels were evacuated from Homs, dozens of captives held by rebels in the northern provinces of Aleppo and Latakia were freed as part of the same deal.
Governor Barazi said 70 people abducted by rebels were released, including 5 children and 17 women.
But a planned relief convoy trying to reach two rebel-blockaded Shi'ite towns outside Aleppo - also part of the deal - was turned back by fighters from al Qaeda's Nusra Front on Wednesday. It was not clear if the aid had moved on Thursday.
Assad is widely expected to be the runaway victor in the June 3 presidential vote, which his opponents have dismissed as a charade.
They say no credible election can be held in a country fractured by civil war, with swathes of territory outside government control, 6 million people displaced and another 2.5 million refugees abroad.
More than 150,000 people have died in the conflict. Millions more have fled their homes and fighting regularly kills more than 200 people a day.
(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)