HOMS, Syria (AP) — Thousands of Syrians streamed into war-battered parts of the central city of Homs for the first time in nearly two years Saturday, many making plans to move back just days after rebels surrendered their strongholds to pro-government forces.
Men, women and children fanned through the city's smashed ancient quarters, some in pickup trucks and bicycles, while most walked on a breezy, sunny day.
A youth band banging drums and holding photographs of Assad marched through the area, adding a celebratory mood for those supporting his government amid the three-year-old conflict.
Residents 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 smashed 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 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.
For rebels, it 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.
"I came to pray on his grave," said Rasim Sayrafi, 40. "The father was a secular man who walked with Muslims and Christians, together and equally. I am here to remember that."
Another young Muslim woman wept next to his tomb.
"I came here to pray for him," said Nadine Abdul-Aziz, 25, before she went to see her home. "I wish he had lived longer to see the liberated Homs."