BEIRUT: All the residents of two Syrian pro-government villages in the country’s northwest — over 7,000 people — who were besieged by the rebels for three years were evacuated on Thursday to government-held territory, Syria’s state-run media reported.
The emptying-out of the Foua and Kfarya villages was one of the largest population transfers in Syria’s civil war. It followed a deal negotiated between government forces and the rebels over the past few months.
The Syrian government is expected to release a number of militants from its jails, in exchange.
The evacuation of the villages was used as a negotiating chip in earlier population transfers along conflict lines. The United Nations was not part of the negotiations and has criticized such transfers as forced displacement.
Meanwhile, reports said negotiators were nearing a deal to have rebels hand over the remaining pockets of opposition-controlled territory in Syria’s southwestern Quneitra province to the government after a month-long military campaign by government forces, backed by Russia.
Syria’s SANA news agency announced the deal was reached, but opposition activists said a prisoner exchange involving an al-Qaida-linked group fighting alongside the rebels was still to be negotiated.
If the deal for Quneitra goes through, Syria’s government would restore its authority over most of the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Thousands of residents — including rebel fighters, media activists, medical workers and civilians — would head to rebel-held Idlib province instead of staying behind in Quneitra, according to local photographer Moaz al-Assaad.
Israel has indicated it does not object to Syrian government’s return to southwest Syria — as long as Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah stay clear of the frontier.
Earlier this week, dozens of Syrians marched toward the frontier, pleading for help as government forces, backed by Russia, stepped up airstrikes on Quneitra. Israel has quietly treated thousands of displaced Syrians for wounds and illnesses over the years.
Many of those trapped by the Syrian government’s advances were hoping for relief from Israel, or some sort of a safe zone there, said Areej Ghabash, a local health worker in Quneitra.
“In truth, we have more faith in Israel than the (Syrian) government,” she said, adding she would leave Quneitra herself rather than reconcile with the government.
The UN’s children’s agency, UNICEF, appealed for access to reach some 55,000 children in need of humanitarian assistance in Quneitra province.
Back in northwest Syria, a fleet of some 60 buses carried the last of the residents from Foua and Kfraya to government-held territory in the neighboring Aleppo province.
Al-Ikhbariya TV said there were no more civilians left in the twin villages, which had endured three years of rebel siege.
An agreement to evacuate the Foua and Kfarya last year faltered after a car bombing killed over 100 people at a parking lot for buses meant to bring the evacuees out.
Shortly after leaving, more than 19 buses carrying the villagers arrived on Thursday at the Tel el-Eis crossing in the countryside of the Aleppo province, while more than 51 buses arrived at a makeshift center for displaced people in Jibreen, the state-run Al-Ikhbariya TV said.
The buses had traveled through rebel-held territory to arrive there.
Evacuation deals and population transfers have been a fixture in the seven-year Syrian conflict, with thousands of rebels and civilians transported from rebel-held areas to the northern province of Idlib and surrounding opposition-held territory amid advances by President Bashar Assad’s forces.