HOMS, Syria (AP) — Thousands of Syrians returned to war-battered parts of the central city of Homs Saturday, many making plans to move back as opposition activists expressed bitterness over the rebels' surrender of their strongholds to pro-government forces and vowed they will return.
The homecoming came as rival jihadi factions fought deadly battles to the east in an oil-rich region bordering Iraq, the latest clashes between groups trying to overthrow the central government in Damascus.
Residents from Homs' smashed ancient quarters scavenged what they could from their homes, mostly clothes, dusty mattresses and some burned gas canisters, carrying them away in plastic bags and trolleys.
"My house was completely destroyed and burnt, but I found some photos," said Sarmad Mousa, 49, a resident of the old Hamidiyeh district. "They will remain a memory for me of the beautiful days we had here."
Some accused rebels of looting and burning their homes. Smaller crowds made the journey Friday.
Other residents were already making plans to stay in their homes, sweeping them clear of rubble and broken glass.
"God willing, we will sleep in our homes tonight, not tomorrow," one man told Lebanese television station al-Mayadeen. "Even if the homes aren't ready, we are going to help each other build our homes," he said.
Hundreds of rebels surrendered their stronghold in Homs to government forces in exchange for their safe passage to the nearby northern countryside as part of a deal that began Wednesday.
Some 2,000 rebels — and civilians living there — were badly weakened by the nearly two-year blockade and heavy bombing of the area.
The surrender deal is widely seen as a victory for President Bashar Assad weeks ahead of a presidential election on June 3 that he is expected to win, giving him a mandate to continue his violent crackdown on rebels in the Syrian civil war, which activists say has killed more than 150,000 people.
Assad has two unknown competitors for the presidential elections, Maher al-Hajjar and Hassan al-Nouri, according to an announcement by Syria's supreme constitutional court on Saturday.
The spokesman, Majed Khadra, made the announcement in a broadcast on state-run television.
Over 20 candidates had applied to run, but Khadra said they did not obtain the necessary support — approval of their candidacy by at least one-third of Syrian lawmakers. His announcement came after six of the original presidential hopefuls appealed to the constitutional court to accept their candidacies.
In the east, al-Qaida breakaway group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant captured the western sector of the oil-rich province of Deir el-Zour after days of fighting with the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and a journalist in eastern Syria.
The Observatory said the 10-day fighting left at least 230 people dead and displaced more than 100,000.
Malba Ali, a Syrian journalist in the province of Hassakeh bordering Deir el-Zour confirmed the Islamic State advances, adding that "many are fleeing the region." Ali is in contact with activists and residents in Deir el-Zour.
For rebels, the withdrawal from Homs was a bitter day, said an opposition activist who uses the name Thaer Khalidiya.
"The fighters left to rest and get treatment, but they want to return to liberate Homs," he said over Skype. "They want to go back."
Municipal workers began fixing power lines in the city while bulldozers cleared rubble from the street. The Syrian Red Crescent gave clean water, food and candles to residents who wanted to return to their homes, Gov. Talal Barazi said.
But danger still lurked in some areas. A man, woman and child have been killed in three separate explosions in Homs after detonating rebel-planted mines left in their homes, Barazi said.
At least five military vehicles carrying soldiers searched the area for more explosives.
Some citizens rushed to the area of Bustan al-Diwan, gathering to pray around the grave of an elderly, beloved Dutch priest who was shot to death in April in a rebel-held part of Homs.
Father Francis Van Der Lugt, 75, was a Jesuit, the same order as Pope Francis. His death underscored fears among many of Syria's Christian and Muslim minorities for the fate of their communities as Islamic extremists gain influence among rebels seeking to topple Assad.
In the contested northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest and former commercial center, opposition fighters continued to cut water supplies from government-held neighborhoods for the seventh consecutive day, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group and state news agency SANA said.
Hadid reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to the report from Beirut.