The evacuation of four besieged Syrian towns resumed Wednesday, with tight security in place for those leaving government-held areas after a weekend bombing against evacuees killed dozens including nearly 70 children.
A large convoy of busses set out from the government-held towns of Fuaa and Kafraya in Syria’s Idlib province, carrying 3,000 people to the rebel-held transit point of Rashidin near Aleppo city, an AFP correspondent at the point said.
At the same time, 11 buses carrying around 300 people left rebel-held Zabadani, Serghaya and Jabal Sharqi in Damascus province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said.
In Rashidin, security was tight after a devastating bomb attack on evacuees at the site on Saturday that according to the Observatory killed 126 people, including 68 children.
Most of the dead were evacuees from the two towns, with a handful of aid workers and rebels guarding the convoy also among the dead.
Dozens of wounded were taken to hospitals in nearby rebel-held territory, while others were taken to Aleppo, which government forces regained full control of late last year.
‘I left for my children’
Armed rebels were standing guard at Rashidin on Wednesday and carefully inspecting vehicles arriving in the area.
Buses were parked in a semi-circle, forming a makeshift barrier around an area in the centre of a lot where evacuees including dozens of children milled.
Pro-government militiamen among those being evacuated from Fuaa and Kafraya squatted next to one bus, smoking cigarettes.
Standing nearby, 55-year-old Um Joud from Fuaa said it was difficult to describe how she felt. “I’m not afraid, because everything is in God’s hands,” she told AFP.
“Of course I would have preferred to stay in my home, but I left for the sake of my children and their lives and futures.”
The evacuations are taking place under a deal between government and opposition representatives that is also seeing residents and rebels transported out from several areas under regime siege near Damascus, primarily Madaya and Zabadani.
It was brokered late last month by Qatar, a longtime opposition supporter, and Iran, a key regime ally, but its implementation had been repeatedly delayed.
When Wednesday’s evacuations are complete, a total of 8,000 people should have left Fuaa and Kafraya, including pro-government fighters and civilians.
In exchange, 2,500 civilians and rebel fighters should have left rebel areas including Zabadani and Madaya.
Zabadani and Madaya “are now empty of any rebel presence,” said Mayyada al-Aswad, a member of the coordinating committee for the operation on the government side.
Wednesday’s evacuations mark the end of the first stage of the deal, with a second phase due to begin in June.
Fuaa and Kafraya will be emptied entirely, with residents and fighters heading to Aleppo and then on to government-held Latakia or the capital Damascus.
All opposition fighters are expected to leave Madaya and Zabadani, as well as several other rebel-held areas nearby, but civilians who want to remain will be allowed to.
Those leaving rebel-held areas will head to Idlib province, which is held by an opposition alliance.
30,000 to be evacuated
In all, up to 30,000 people are expected to evacuate under the deal, which is the latest in a string of such agreements between the government and rebels.
The agreement is the latest in a string of such deals, which the government of President Bashar al-Assad says are the best way to end the violence after more than six years of civil war.
Rebels say they amount to forced relocation after years of bombardment and siege.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Saturday’s bombing, which was condemned by Syria’s opposition, including the powerful Ahrar al-Sham rebel group.
The government blamed “terrorists” — a catch-all term for its opponents.
Syrian state television on Wednesday reported another bomb blast had hit Aleppo city, killing six people, but the report could not be immediately confirmed.
It said dozens were wounded in the explosion in the Salaheddin neighbourhood, which was divided between rebel and government control until the army recaptured east Aleppo in December.
The United Nations says 4.72 million Syrians are in hard-to-reach areas, including 600,000 people under siege, mostly by the Syrian army, but also by rebels or the Islamic State group.
There has been a string of evacuations in recent months, mostly around the capital Damascus but also from the last rebel-held district of Syria’s third city Homs.
Syria’s war has killed more than 320,000 people since it began with anti-government protests in March 2011. More than half of the population have been forced from their homes.