Sun, Apr 16, 2017 - Page 1 News List

Syrians stuck after deal to evacuate halted: observers

Reuters and AP, BEIRUT

People evacuated from villages in Syria wait near buses in Aleppo province after an agreement between rebels and the Syrian army was halted yesterday.

Photo: Reuters

Thousands of Syrians were stuck in and around Aleppo yesterday as a deal to evacuate people from two Shiite villages in return for Sunni rebels and their families leaving two besieged towns near Damascus halted, a war monitor and rights advocates said.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the delay was because rebels from Zabadani, one of the towns included in the deal, had not yet been granted safe passage out.

The agreement is one of several concluded in recent months that has seen Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government take back control of areas long besieged by his forces and their allies.

In the latest deal, hundreds of rebels and their families evacuated the town of Madaya near Damascus and were taken to the government-held city of Aleppo. From there they are to travel to Idlib province, an insurgent stronghold.

In return, pro-government fighters and residents from the Shiite villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, both surrounded by Idlib rebels, have left the area and reached Aleppo’s outskirts.

Those from Madaya sat outside rows of coaches in a bus garage in government-held Aleppo, waiting to move onto Idlib, photographs sent by a pro-opposition activist showed.

Residents from the Shiite villages were still waiting in insurgent territory on Aleppo’s outskirts to cross into the city, the Observatory and a witness said.

Meanwhile, backed by Russian air power and allied militiamen on the ground, Syrian troops have recaptured entire cities from rebels and the Islamic State group in the past year, including the key cities of Aleppo, Homs and Palmyra.

Yet for the past three years, al-Assad’s forces have been unable to free opposition-held neighborhoods of the capital Damascus, where rebel fighters have built a labyrinth of secret underground tunnels, beyond the reach of airstrikes and connected to opposition-held suburbs farther out.

However, the weeks-long push to expand the security belt around al-Assad’s seat of power shows a new determination to retake the three areas north and northeast of the capital partially held by rebels.

The offensive is the strongest in years, with warplanes reportedly conducting more than 70 airstrikes in one day and use of surface-to-surface missiles in some of the deadliest attacks in weeks.

“The regime is pushing with all the powers it has,” said Ahmad Mahmoud, an opposition activist based in a rebel-held eastern suburb of Damascus.

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