BEIRUT: A rare UN-backed deal between Syria’s warring sides saw hundreds of fighters and civilians evacuate three towns on Monday, as bomb blasts in the regime-held city of Homs killed at least 19 people.
President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has agreed to several ceasefires with rebel groups in the past but Monday’s evacuation plan was one of the most elaborate in the nearly five-year war.
The United Nations has been pushing for such local deals as global powers pursue wider efforts to resolve a conflict that left more than 250,000 dead and forced millions from their homes.
More than 450 fighters and civilians, including the wounded, left three flashpoint areas in Syria as part of a six-month truce reached in September.
In a joint statement, the UN, the Syrian Red Crescent and the International Committee of the Red Cross said they had “successfully” carried out the evacuation of 338 people from the towns of Foua and Kafraya, and 126 from Zabadani city.
“They were simultaneously evacuated by land and air through Turkey and Lebanon to the agreed final destinations where those requiring longer term medical care will receive it,” the statement said.
A source at Beirut airport told AFP a plane carrying those evacuated from Zabadani had taken off in the direction of Turkey, from where they were due to return to rebel-controlled areas of Syria.
Another 335 people, also including civilians, traveled from two regime-controlled villages in northwestern Syria into Turkey on Monday, Abdel Rahman said.
Residents of the mainly Shiite villages of Fuaa and Kafraya crossed through the Bab al-Hawa border point and are to fly into Beirut to travel overland to Damascus.
“We appreciate the cooperation of all sides, of the Syrian, Turkish, and Lebanese governments, and all the sides that have signed on to this humanitarian agreement,” said UN humanitarian coordinator Yaacoub El Hillo.
It is the first time the neighboring countries are involved in such an evacuation deal.
The next part of the agreement, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, would see humanitarian aid delivered into the towns.
Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said Assad’s regime was keen to reach such agreements as part of its “efforts to secure the capital by seizing control of rebel-held areas or through ceasefire deals.”
Al-Manar, a Lebanese television station affiliated with pro-Assad Shiite group Hezbollah, broadcast live footage of the Zabadani convoy entering Lebanon.
Dozens of people gathered at the Masnaa crossing rushed the buses as ambulance sirens wailed.
The station had provided coverage earlier of bearded fighters wearing military-style fatigues boarding the buses amid bombed-out ruins in Zabadani.
Similar ceasefire deals have been implemented in other parts of the country throughout Syria’s war, often after crippling sieges of rebel-held areas.
Government figures and local leaders reached a deal last week to evacuate thousands of jihadists and civilians from southern Damascus, but the agreement was apparently derailed after the death of rebel chief Zahran Alloush on Friday.
Alloush, the head of Jaish al-Islam, the foremost rebel group in Damascus province, was killed in an air strike claimed by Syria’s government.
Bombing in Homs
In one of the most significant such deals so far, anti-government rebels earlier this month quit the last opposition-held district of the central city of Homs, once dubbed “the capital of the revolution.”
But violence has since rocked the city.
On Monday, at least 19 people were killed and dozens wounded in large bomb blasts in the city’s Al-Zahraa neighborhood, Syria’s state news agency SANA said.