Thousands evacuate pro-regime Syria towns

A member of Hayat Tahrir al Sham group led by Syria's former Al Qaeda affiliate watches as a convoy of busses gets ready to enter the towns of Fuaa and Kefraya to evacuate their residents

People being evacuated from villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, Syria.

Armed HTS militants stood on the roadside as the convoy of evacuees inched past, with pro-regime militiamen and regular civilians sitting solemnly on board and staring ahead. More than 100 buses arrived on Wednesday to transport residents and fighters from the villages to nearby government-held territory in Aleppo province.

The so-called Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is sympathetic to the anti-Damascus militants, said some 6,900 civilians and militants had been evacuated from the besieged towns, and that the government had "started releasing detainees, as per the deal".

Surrounded and bombed by hostile factions, the towns had become a rallying cry for the government and its ally Iran. "They included five children and three women", Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.

There was no immediate confirmation of the departures from state media, which had earlier reported dozens of buses and ambulances entering the towns.

There was no official word on the deal but state-owned Ikhabriyah television station said there were "reports of an agreement to liberate thousands from the two towns".

The villages have been under siege for years by Sunni Islamist rebels in Idlib province, the last major insurgent-held part of Syria.

Those forces had allowed the United Nations and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to deliver aid to the towns in exchange for similar deliveries to two regime-besieged towns near Damascus.

Residents of a third town, Ishtabrak, are also being evacuated to the coastal region of Latakia.

The deal involves the complete evacuation of all the population in Kafraya and Foa, and in exchange, the government will release 1,500 detainees from the rebels and their affiliates.

In April of 2017, 112 people from both towns were killed while reaching a rebel-held area in Aleppo, when rebels detonated a auto bomb near the buses transporting them to the government-controlled parts in Aleppo city.

The province borders Turkey to the northwest but is otherwise nearly completely surrounded by government-held territory.

The towns of Kafarya and Foa, both predominantly Shiite towns that have been besieged since three years ago in the countryside of the northwestern province of Idlib, will see thousands of people leaving after a deal was reached with the government. The momentum in the seven-year war is now decidedly in Assad's favour, but large parts of the country's east and north remain outside of the regime's control, in the hands of American-backed Kurdish militias and Turkish-backed proxy fighters.

It added that the deal also includes the release of 34 prisoners held by Lebanon's Hezbollah resistance movement, which has been helping the Syrian army - along with Iran and Russian Federation - in its counter-terrorism fight.

Tens of thousands of civilians remain displaced in a part of Quneitra just a handful of kilometres (miles) from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

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