The last remaining residents on Thursday departed two pro-regime towns in northwestern Syria long besieged by rebels and a former al-Qaeda affiliate, a monitor said.
Al-Fa’wa and Kufriya, in Idlib province, “were entirely empty of residents” after some 6,900 civilians and pro-regime fighters left under an evacuation deal, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Buses had begun evacuating fighters and civilians early Thursday morning under a deal between regime backer Russia and rebel ally Turkey to allow thousands to leave after three years of encirclement. An AFP reporter in neighboring Aleppo province later saw dozens of buses crossing from rebel territory into regime-held areas.
The Shiite-majority towns have been besieged for three years by rebels and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadist alliance led by Syria’s former al-Qaeda affiliate. Under the evacuation deal, all residents were to be taken to government-held territory in exchange for prisoner releases from regime jails.
“As the buses entered regime-held areas, the regime started releasing detainees, as per the deal,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said. An HTS source said the group’s fighters had entered the towns after the evacuation was complete.
Al-Fa’wa and Kufriya were the last remaining areas under siege in Syria, where government forces have also repeatedly used crippling blockades during the last seven years of war. Starting on Wednesday morning, a series of barricades on the road leading into the towns were removed to let dozens of buses in, AFP's correspondent there said.
Just after midnight, buses drove out of al-Fa’wa and Kufriya and into a staging ground in the nearby Suwaghiya area. 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.
Surrounded and bombed by hostile factions, the towns had been a rallying cry for the government and its ally Iran, as well as a playing card in rebel hands. They had come under siege in 2015 as rebels and militants overran the surrounding province of Idlib, cutting off access to food and medicine.
Those forces allowed the United Nations and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to deliver aid to the towns in exchange for operations with two government-besieged towns near Damascus. The four towns also saw coordinated evacuation deals.
In April 2017, thousands were bussed out of al-Fa’wa and Kufriya in exchange for parallel evacuations from the towns of Zabadani and Madaya.