Besieged Syria rebels evacuated in rare deal

Wounded fighters evacuated with families by bus and ambulance as part of deal that also gives safe passage to civilians.

Masnaa border crossing
The fighters and their families were to be transferred to Beirut International Airport in convoys of buses [AP]

Beirut, Lebanon – Dozens of wounded rebel fighters, along with members of their families, have been evacuated from a Syrian border town that is besieged by government forces, in a swap deal brokered by Turkey and Iran.

The evacuation was agreed as part of a deal that will, in exchange, see the safe passage of scores of civilians from two government-supporting villages that are surrounded by rebels in northern Syria.

Some 126 people – including 70 rebel fighters – who have been under siege in the town of Zabadani, which is in Syria’s south near the Lebanese border, arrived at Beirut airport on Monday evening.

They will then fly to Turkey under the supervision of the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) from where they will be transferred to Syria’s largely rebel-held Idlib province.

Another 336 people – including women and children – from the besieged Fuaa and Kefraya towns in the opposition-held province of Idlib, northern Syria, were also evacuated through the Turkish-Syrian Bab al Hawa border crossing to the airport in Hatay province.

The rebel fighters and their families are expected to fly to Turkey under the supervision of the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) from where they will be transferred to Syria’s largely rebel-held Idlib province.

They travelled to Beirut via the Lebanese border crossing al-Masnaa in convoys of buses. Ambulances also entered Zabadani on Monday to transport the seriously wounded.

Sources in Zabadani told Al Jazeera that at least 12 ICRC and UN vehicles had arrived in the town by 8am local time (0500GMT) to take the rebels out.

Opposition-held Zabadani has been subjected to a relentless bombardment for months by government troops, backed by the Shia Lebanese group Hezbollah, in an attempt to take it from the rebels.

The evacuations, an effective swap, come after a negotiated ceasefire deal involving Turkey and the armed group Ahrar al-Sham on one side, and Iran and the Syrian government on the other.

‘Unprecedented destruction’

The villages of Fuaa and Kefraya have been under siege by Jaysh el Fateh – a collective of opposition groups that includes Ahrar al Sham and the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front – since March 2015.

Rockets have regularly been launched at the two villages, in which about 4,000 families live.

At the same time as the Zabadani transports, about 336 people – including women and children – were being evacuated from the two Shia villages, which are in Idlib.

Monday’s swap, a rare event in Syria, is considered to be the first phase of a ceasefire deal, brokered in September, to stop the months of fighting in Zabadani.

According to medical sources involved in the operation, the people being transferred from Fuaa and Kefraya to Turkey have been selected from among those in the village who need urgent treatment.

They are expected to be transported from through the Bab al Hawa border crossing into Turkey. From Turkey, they will travel to Beirut and then on to the Syrian capital Damascus.

“Those who are in urgent need of medical attention will stay in Lebanon until they are able to move again and will then proceed onto Syria,” a medical source told Al Jazeera, adding they have been waiting for three months for the deal to be implemented.

Syria deal: ‘Population swap’ or ‘sectarian cleansing?’

The UN in July spoke of “unprecedented levels of destruction and many deaths among the civilian population” in Zabadani caused by barrel bombs dropped by Syrian government planes.

It also voiced concern about the 15,000 civilians in Fuaa and Kefraya, living under the pressure of an opposition advance.

In October, the Red Cross delivered eight trucks of food and aid to the towns, while simultaneously sending similar trucks to Zabadani and and nearby Madaya.

Source: Al Jazeera