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Hundreds of rebels, civilians evacuated in Syria swap

Some 500 rebels and civilians were involved in the humanitarian swap. The UN hopes to replicate local ceasefires and humanitarian operations across Syria.

More than a hundred rebels and civilians were evacuated to Lebanon from a town besieged by Syrian regime forces on Monday, while separately some 400 civilians from two Shiite villages surrounded by Islamist rebels in the country's north were evacuated to Turkey.

The simultaneous swaps were part of a United Nations-sponsored agreement to achieve local ceasefires and safe passage that could be a model for a future country-wide peace process, the UN said.

The 125 largely wounded fighters and civilians from Zabadani near the border with Lebanon were carried in convoys to Beirut, where a Turkish plane awaited to take them to Turkey, a major sponsor of rebels seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Simultaneously, some 400 civilians and wounded fighters trapped for months in the Shiite towns of Kfarya and Foua in Idlib province in northern Syria were transported across the border to Hatay province in Turkey, where a plane waited to take them to Lebanon.

The Shiite villagers will then be taken care of by the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, which is fighting to support the Assad regime, before being placed in regime-held areas in Syria.

The rebels from Zabadani will be able to receive treatment in Turkey and return to the Syrian battlefield in the north.

The next step envisions the government allowing aid shipments to civilians who have spent months under siege and seen Zabadani destroyed by a relentless regime and Hezbollah onslaught.

In September, Syrian rebels and Hezbollah agreed to a six-month truce around the three towns in order to allow the transfer of thousands of Shiite and Sunni civilians and fighters still in the towns from one area to another.

Under the plan, the government would then take control of Zabadani.

Spreading ceasefires?

The UN has scheduled peace talks between Syria's rebels and opposition and the Assad regime for late January. The UN-endorsed road map drawn up by world powers to end the war could see ceasefires implemented as negotiations progress, followed by an 18-month period to create a unity government and hold elections.

"As the United Nations and international community, these agreements and truces are the foundations for building something bigger that could cover all of Syria," Yacoub El Hilo, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Syria, told reporters on Monday.

The swap around the three towns follows another successful ceasefire and evacuation in the central city of Homs earlier this month. That deal saw the Syrian government allow fighters to withdraw with their weapons from the last besieged neighborhood in the city in exchange for a return to government control and supplies to beleaguered citizens.

Meanwhile, twin suicide bombs hit Homs on Monday, killing at least 19 people.

Another deal that was to evacuate nearly 2,000 fighters including those belonging to the "Islamic State" terror group - along with civilians - from a south Damascus suburb last week fell apart after a top rebel commander was killed in an airstrike.

cw/se (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)

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