The Syrian government has agreed to release rebel prisoners in exchange for evacuating the residents in two beleaguered cities. Activists and rights groups warned that the evacuations could be a form of displacement.
Residents evacuated two Shiite villages in northwestern Syria on Thursday morning after the Syrian government struck a deal to allow them to leave by pledging to release hundreds of rebel prisoners in exchange.
Some 120 buses carrying approximately 6,900 evacuees had left the towns of al-Foua and Kefraya, taking residents to nearby government-held territory in Aleppo province, a monitoring group said.
"The buses have left in the early hours of the morning and the two towns are completely empty now," Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told news agency dpa.
The villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, in Idlib province, had been under siege for several years by Sunni Islamist rebels operating in the area. The deal to completely evacuate the towns was brokered by Russia, the main ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and Turkey, which is backing the Syrian opposition.
Idlib province is home to more than 2 million people, including Syrian civilians and rebels who had relocated there from other opposition-held territory in other surrender deals.
The government has not provided details on the release of 1,500 rebels from government-run jails, but according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the deal would also spare Idlib from future military offensives by the regime.
More evacuations imminent near Golan
Later on Thursday, state TV said that 10 buses had entered a village in Quneitra province, in Syria's southwest, to start evacuating more insurgents to rebel territory in the north.
Damascus is set to retake control of the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in a major victory over rebels who have agreed to surrender terms.
After recently recovering territory from rebels in the southwest, Assad is hoping to recover all of Syria through agreements such as the evacuation deal in al-Foua and Kefraya.
But activists and rights groups warned that such large-scale transfers may amount to forced displacement. The International Committee of the Red Cross demanded that any movement of people must be voluntary.
"Any evacuations, in Syria, or elsewhere, must follow basic humanitarian rules: Civilians can choose to stay or leave. Civilians must be protected against attacks — at all times. Evacuations are temporary — civilians have the right to return," the ICRC wrote on Twitter.
The conflict in Syria broke out in March 2011 with protests against Assad and his government. Since then, the conflict has killed an estimated 500,000 people and driven some 11 million from their homes.
mm,rs/ng (AFP, dpa, Reuters)