Rebels in the southwest province of Quneitra in Syria have started leaving the area after giving up their fight against government forces near the frontier with Israel, according to Syrian state media.
A convoy of buses on Friday mid-afternoon carried the first batch of rebels, their family members and assorted civilians to opposition-held territory in the north where they will live among more than one million others displaced by Syria’s seven-year-long civil war.
The surrender in Quneitra, in line with a deal that was struck between rebels and pro-government forces, is a big victory for President Bashar al-Assad whose troops are close to reclaiming complete control of the country’s south.
According to state media, the agreement “stipulates the departure to Idlib [province] of terrorists who reject the settlements”, and allow those who wish to remain to “settle” their status with the authorities, meaning accepting a return of state rule.
The state-controlled al-Ikhbariya TV station broadcast footage on Friday of fighters dressed in fatigues boarding buses in the village of Um Batina in Quneitra, which adjoins the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The pro-government Central Military Media outlet said there were 50 buses ready to transport rebels to the opposition-held Idlib province in northwest Syria.
A military news service run by Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which is fighting in support of Damascus, said buses “carrying militants” had left the city of al-Quneitra headed north.
The evacuation was also reported by Anadolu Agency correspondents, while a Reuters news agency witness at a vantage point on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights saw a steady movement of people out of the village of al-Qahtaniya, near Quneitra. A stream of motorcycles, heavily laden cars and flatbed trucks packed with men, women and children departed the village.
Al-Ikhbariya said that a second convoy of buses was preparing to depart with another batch of Quneitra fighters.
A Syrian army offensive launched earlier in June has managed to retake much of southern Syria’s Deraa and Quneitra provinces, previously in rebel hands.
With Russian backing, the relentless aerial bombardment campaign forced the opposition into a succession of surrender deals that left them with little choice but to move to rebel-held territory in the north – notably Idlib province – or accept a return to Assad rule.
The developments in Quineitra 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.
The plea followed an intense bombing campaign on the densely populated town of Nawa in Deraa province earlier this week.
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.