Syria's war: Rebels reach north after Quneitra evacuations

Syrian government now controls large swaths of territory in country's strategic south.

    A first batch of evacuees arrived at a rebel checkpoint early on Saturday [Khalil Ashawi/Reuters]
    A first batch of evacuees arrived at a rebel checkpoint early on Saturday [Khalil Ashawi/Reuters]

    The first group of Syrian rebels and their families evacuated from southern Syria after a deal was struck with the government has arrived in the country's northwest. 

    A total of 55 buses carrying rebel fighters and members of their families departed the strategic area in Quneitra province that adjoins the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on Friday, Syria's official SANA news agency said.

    The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said a first convoy of some 2,800 people had arrived on Saturday at the Morek transit point, in Hama province, which separates opposition from government-held areas.

    The fighters and their families are expected to be transferred to buses run by local non-governmental organisations before continuing their journey to rebel areas in Idlib and Aleppo provinces.

    Al Jazeera's Adham Abu Al Husam, reporting from Hama province, said that transports would take place until Monday, with as many as 13,000 people expected to arrive.

    "There will be more people coming, huge numbers coming from south to north," he said, as the first group of buses was arriving.

    "There will need to be a lot of resources and a concerted effort to accommodate such large numbers of people. They will initially be taken to already prepared shelters in northern Syria".

    The evacuations came after a surrender deal was reached earlier in the week between the opposition and Russian negotiators acting on behalf of the Syrian government. It provides for the safe passage of residents who do not wish to live under the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.

    Syrian army pushes into Quneitra province

    Syrian forces, backed by a Russian air campaign, have been pushing into the edges of Quneitra province following a relentless aerial bombardment campaign last month that routed rebels in adjoining Deraa province. 

    Pro-government forces have recaptured 90 percent of the territory through similar surrender deals with the opposition whereby the latter agrees to also hand over medium to heavy weaponry. 

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    On Saturday, Syrian state television announced pro-government forces had captured a string of villages in a zone extending between the two southwestern provinces.

    Deraa city is seen as the birthplace of the Syrian uprising after protests in 2011 against the government's torture of teenagers spread across the country.

    The recent evacuation deal has left the Syrian government in control over large swaths of territory that straddle both provinces and border neighbouring Jordan and Israel. 

    It has now turned its attention to pockets of territory still in the hands of fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS). 

    The developments in Quneitra came as the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) on Friday urged all parties to the conflict to provide safe passage for the estimated 140,000 civilians displaced as a result of the recent surge in violence. 

    Last week, dozens of Syrians sought refuge near the border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights but were turned back by Israeli border guards.

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    UNHCR spokeswoman Rula Amin told Al Jazeera that Syrians have been stranded without shelter or assistance for weeks.

    "These people left their homes weeks ago, looking for safety, trying to protect their families," she said.

    The UNHCR also expressed its readiness to discuss its plans to set up centres for returning Syrian refugees, insisting that returns must be safe and voluntary. 

    An estimated 13,000 Syrian refugees returned from neighbouring countries in the first half of 2018 with some 750,000 internally displaced also going back to their homes, UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic said at a news conference in Geneva.

    The conflict has claimed the lives of more than 465,000 Syrians and left over a million injured.

    More than half the country's prewar population, some 12 million people, have fled Syria or been internally displaced. 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies


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