Shiites in two northern Syrian towns are being evacuated in exchange for moving Sunni rebels and civilians out of two others. More than 30,000 people are expected to be evacuated under the deal.
Under a deal brokered by opposition backer Qatar and regime ally Iran, the Syrian government and the opposition on Friday began a coordinated population swap of tens of thousands of people from four besieged towns.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said buses carrying rebels began leaving the rebel-held towns Madaya and Zabadani near Damascus on Friday morning in the first phase of the deal, which will also see the evacuation of residents from two pro-government Shiite villages in northern Syria.
Al-Foua and Kefraya evacuated
All 16,000 residents of the majority Shiite towns of al-Foua and Kefraya – long besieged by insurgents in the northwestern Idlib province – are expected to leave, heading to government-held Aleppo, the coastal province of Latakia or Damascus.
A member of one of the Shiite parties said 60 buses were moving through the town of al-Foua.
Dozens of buses entered the areas on Wednesday, but by late Thursday people had not boarded them, opposition activists in the rebel-held towns said.
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Zabadani evacuation delayed
Buses carrying mostly Sunni rebel fighters and their families also simultaneously left the town of Madaya near Damascus on Friday, encircled by government forces and their allies. Civilian residents there will reportedly be allowed to remain if they choose.
According to the Observatory, the evacuation of Zabadani, also besieged by the government side, has been delayed until Friday evening or early Saturday.
‘Deliberate demographic change’
Over the past year, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government has struck numerous deals enabling rebels and their families to leave opposition-held areas, often after months or years of being besieged by government forces.
The opposition, however, says the deals amount to forced population transfer and deliberate demographic change.
The armed opposition fighting for more than half a decade to unseat Assad is mostly Sunni Muslim, like most of Syria’s population. Assad is from the Alawite religious minority, and is supported by Shiite fighters from Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah group. More than 300,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011.