Syrian rebels, Shi'ite villagers evacuated from towns under swap deal

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Buses evacuated thousands of people from two rebel-besieged Shi’ite villages in northwest Syria on Friday and hundreds of rebels left a town near Damascus with their families, under a deal between the government and insurgents.

A monitoring group said government forces later entered Madaya, the town where rebels had been holed up for nearly two years, taking back control of yet more territory around the capital Damascus as Syria’s conflict enters its seventh year.

Similar agreements have been reached in recent months, with rebels leaving areas long besieged by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, sometimes in exchange for Shi’ite Muslim residents moving from the villages surrounded by the mostly Sunni insurgents.

Damascus holds the upper hand against rebels in the west of the country, and has negotiated the deals from a position of strength thanks to Russia’s intervention in support of Assad since 2015, as well as backing from Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah.

The opposition says the deals amount to forced demographic change and deliberate displacement of Assad’s enemies away from the main cities of western Syria.

The government says the deals allow it to take back control and to restore services in the wrecked towns.

Early on Friday, residents of the mostly Shi’ite villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, besieged by rebel forces in the insurgents’ northwestern Idlib province stronghold, left on dozens of buses, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.

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The buses arrived several hours later on the outskirts of government-held Aleppo city in northern Syria, the Observatory said.

Meanwhile, buses carrying rebel fighters and their families left government-besieged Madaya near Damascus, the Observatory and a pro-Damascus military media unit reported.

The evacuation of nearby Zabadani, another town surrounded by government forces and their allies and included in the deal, appeared to have been delayed. No buses had yet left the town, but that operation was expected to begin later on Friday.

The convoys from Madaya and Zabadani are to head for Idlib.

A member of one of the Shi’ite parties said 60 buses were moving through the town of al-Foua.

A similar number of buses were leaving Madaya, the Observatory said. State television reported that engineering teams and Syrian forces would soon enter the town.

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About 5,000 people were being transported from the Shi’ite villages, and more than 2,000 from Madaya. The convoys included hundreds of fighters from each side, the Observatory said.

Buses began arriving from al-Foua and Kefraya on Aleppo’s outskirts later on Friday, and passengers were being searched by insurgents before they could cross into government territory, a witness said.

Syria’s population is mostly Sunni Muslim. Assad is from the Alawite religious minority, often considered an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.

Assad’s forces and their allies have fought rebels for six years in the conflict that grew from a popular uprising in 2011.

Russia’s intervention around 18 months ago has helped him gain the upper hand militarily, despite diplomatic pressure and support for the rebels by Western and Gulf Arab states. Rebels and Islamist factions have fought back and achieved recent advances in some areas.

The United States escalated its involvement in the conflict last week, striking a Syrian air base in response to what Washington said was a Syrian chemical weapons attack that killed scores of people in the northwest of the country on April 4. Assad has denied his forces were responsible.

Writing by Michael Georgy and John Davison; Editing by Mark Trevelyan