Evacuations from besieged Syrian towns end after two-day halt


Reuters

UPDATE 4-Evacuations from besieged Syrian towns end after two-day halt


* Evacuations had been delayed for 48 hours
    * Rebels say prisoners to be freed as part of deal

 (Adds first released prisoners arriving in rebel-held area)
    By Ellen FrancisBEIRUT, April 21 (Reuters) - The evacuation of Syrian
civilians and fighters from four besieged towns was completed on
Friday after a 48-hour halt, as part of a mediated swap deal
between the warring sides, state media and a rebel official
said.
    Thousands of civilians and pro-government fighters from the
Shi'ite towns of al-Foua and Kefraya arrived in army-held
Aleppo, a war monitor said.
    Evacuees from the two rebel-besieged towns had been stuck at
a staging area outside the city, where a bomb attack on an
evacuation convoy killed scores of people last week.
[nL8N1HO04Y]
    In exchange, busloads of rebels and their relatives from
Zabadani left a second nearby transit point for rebel territory,
state television said. A witness told Reuters that 100 prisoners
released by the government as part of the swap had also arrived
in the rebel-held territory outside Aleppo.
    The towns of Zabadani and Madaya, which had long been under
siege by pro-government forces near Damascus, came under state
rule this week after Sunni rebels and civilians were evacuated.

    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war
monitor, said the 48-hour suspension was due to rebel demands
for the government to free 750 prisoners under the deal.
    Rebels reached an agreement on Friday with the government
for it to release the first 500 prisoners who would cross into
opposition areas as part of the wider deal, a rebel official
told Reuters. The other 250 prisoners would be released in
coming days, he said.
    Mohamad Abu Zeid, a spokesman for the Ahrar al-Sham group,
said negotiations over the issue had concluded and the prisoners
would arrive at a rebel-held area near Aleppo "within hours".
    The Syrian army could not immediately be reached for
comment.

    UPPER HAND
    A senior Arab diplomat in Qatar involved in the talks told
Reuters that Iranian officials and Ahrar al-Sham held
discussions about the four-towns swap in Qatar when Iran's
foreign minister visited Doha in March.
    Those discussions also involved the freeing of 26 Qatari
hostages held by unidentified gunmen in Iraq, he
said.[nL8N1HT32B]
    During evacuations on Saturday, a bomb blast hit a packed
convoy carrying evacuees from al-Foua and Kefraya, killing at
least 126 people, including more than 60 children, who were
waiting on Aleppo's outskirts.
    Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was cited as saying the
former Nusra Front carried out the bombing, which no group has
yet claimed responsibility for.
    The Nusra Front was al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria until it
broke off its allegiance to the global militant movement and
rebranded itself last year. It merged with a number of insurgent
Islamist factions in January under a new jihadist alliance
called Tahrir al-Sham.
    Thousands of Syrians have been evacuated mostly out of
besieged opposition areas in recent months, under deals between
Assad's government and rebels fighting for six years to unseat
him.
    The opposition has denounced this as a deliberate policy of
demographic change to forcibly displace Assad's opponents away
from the main cities of western Syria.
    Fighters and civilians have poured into rebel-held Idlib
province in northwest Syria over the last year, shuttled out of
other areas the army and its allies captured.
    With the help of Russia and Iranian-backed militias, the
government has gained the military upper hand against the wide
array of rebel groups, including some supported by Turkey, the
United States and Gulf monarchies.
    U.N. Syria humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland said there had
been more evacuation deals this year than before, but that they
appeared driven more by military priorities than humanitarian
concerns.
    "They seem to follow a military logic, they do not seem to
put the civilians at the heart of the agreement," he told
reporters in Geneva on Thursday.
    The United Nations was not involved in the evacuation of the
four towns. Egeland said that it was misleading to consider them
voluntary evacuations when the towns had been besieged for
years.
    "Besiegement should end by being lifted," he said, "not by
places being emptied from people."

 (Additional reporting by Angus McDowall in Beirut, Stephanie
Nebehay in Geneva, Tom Finn in Doha; Editing by Alison Williams)
 ((Ellen.Francis@thomsonreuters.com))

Keywords: MIDEAST CRISIS/SYRIA EVACUATIONS (UPDATE 4, PIX, TV)



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