Several thousand residents evacuated two pro-regime towns in northern Syria on Thursday, putting an end to one of the longest sieges of the country’s seven-year civil war.
Foua and Kafriya in Idlib province were the last remaining areas under blockade in Syria and a rare example of pro-government towns surrounded by rebel forces.
The Shiite-majority towns were besieged for three years by rebels and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist alliance led by Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate.
Surrounded and bombed by hostile factions, the towns had become a rallying cry for the government and its ally Iran.
A deal was reached Tuesday between regime-backer Russia and rebel-ally Turkey to see the residents taken to government-held territory in exchange for the release of prisoners from regime jails.
On Wednesday morning, barricades on the road leading into the towns were removed to let dozens of buses in, AFP’s correspondent there said.
Just after midnight, the buses drove out of Foua and Kafriya and Thursday morning were at the village of Al-Eis, crossing from rebel-controlled territory into regime-held areas in Aleppo province.
Armed HTS fighters stood on the roadside as the convoy of evacuees inched past, with pro-government militiamen and regular civilians sitting solemnly on board and staring ahead.
Rebels take control
Syria’s state news agency Sana reported late Wednesday that more than 120 buses and Syrian Arab Red Crescent ambulances entered the two towns to transport residents to government-held territory.
According to HTS sources, the evacuation had been agreed in exchange for the release of 1,500 people from government-run jails.
An HTS source said the group’s fighters had entered the towns after the evacuation was complete.
Foua and Kafriya came under siege in 2015 as rebels and jihadists overran the surrounding province of Idlib, cutting off access to food and medicine.
Those forces had allowed the United Nations and the SARC to deliver aid to the towns in exchange for similar deliveries to two government-besieged towns near Damascus.
The four towns also saw coordinated evacuation deals.
In April 2017, thousands were bussed out of Foua and Kafriya in exchange for parallel evacuations from the towns of Zabadani and Madaya.
But a blast targeting a convoy of evacuees left 150 people dead, most of them civilians and including 72 children.
Some reports have suggested Tuesday’s deal also involves an agreement to spare Idlib a military offensive by the regime.
The province borders Turkey to the northwest but is otherwise almost completely surrounded by regime-held territory.
It is home to more than two million people, including Syrian civilians and rebels moved out of other opposition-held territory in surrender deals.
Syria’s conflict erupted in March 2011 with protests against President Bashar al-Assad that escalated into a devastating, complex war.
After losing swathes of territory to rebels in the early years of the conflict, Assad’s forces have managed to regain much of the country since Russian forces intervened in the regime’s favor in 2015.
The retaking of second city Aleppo last year marked a major turning point and earlier this year the government retook Eastern Ghouta, the last rebel-held area near the capital Damascus.
Both victories followed crushing regime sieges and heavy bombardment.
In recent weeks Russia brokered a deal for rebels to hand over large parts of the southern province of Daraa, considered by many as the birthplace of the anti-Assad revolution.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said on Wednesday that Syrian government forces were in control of 90 percent of Daraa province.
Fighting has continued in the south though, with at least 15 civilians reported killed in air strikes in Daraa on Wednesday.
With reporting from AFP