Thousands of residents from two rebel-besieged loyalist towns in northwestern Syria have been evacuated to government-controlled territory as part of a deal that will see hundreds of detainees released from state-run prisons.
The last remaining residents of the predominantly Shia towns of al-Foua and Kefraya, estimated at 6,000, departed after more than a hundred buses arrived early on Thursday to transport them to government-held territory in Aleppo province.
On Wednesday, rebels from Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham – a group formerly linked to al-Qaeda – and Iran-backed forces reached an agreement to evacuate people in exchange for the release of more than 1,500 civilians and rebels held in state prisons.
Thursday’s evacuation began with ambulances ferrying out the sick to a government checkpoint before 121 buses departed the villages, state-run al-Ikhbariya TV said.
The villages of northern Syria’s Idlib province – the last major rebel stronghold in the country – had been under siege for more than three years.
A deal for the evacuation of residents from the two Shia-majority towns was first reached in April 2017 but had only partially materialised with only a group of people evacuated to government-held areas.
The April evacuation was halted after a blast killed 150 people, including 72 children.
Iran, which backs the government of President Bashar al-Assad against the mainly Sunni rebels and has expanded its military role in Syria, has long taken an interest in the fate of the Shia residents of the two towns.
In the past two years, thousands of people, mostly from rebel-held areas besieged by the government, have been forced to move to territories still under rebel control as part of evacuation deals.
The opposition has consistently maintained that such evacuation deals amount to forced demographic change and deliberate displacement of Sunni populations away from the country’s urban centres.
They accuse Tehran of attempting to change the demographics in areas close to Damascus with the goal of partitioning the country.
Another opposition source said the resumption of talks was aimed at deterring a potential military campaign by pro-government forces on the two towns.
Idlib is part of a de-escalation deal – signed by Iran, Russia and Turkey – that calls for the cessations of hostilities between rebel groups and government forces.
The agreement, which initially included Eastern Ghouta in the northern Damascus countryside and Deraa province in the south, has already been broken with government forces, backed by Russian air support, in control of much of the territory.