Syria: Four-Towns Evacuation process ends on Friday after 48-hour halt

Syria: Four-Towns Evacuation process ends on Friday after 48-hour halt
A convoy of buses carrying evacuees from the two Shi'ite villages of al-Foua and Kefraya arrive to government-controlled Aleppo, in this handout picture provided by SANA on April 12, 2017. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

The evacuation process from four besieged areas in Syria, under a deal between the rebels and Assad regime, was finished on Friday after it was in danger due to a deadly bomb attack that left 126 evacuees dead.

After long months of siege, bombing, and starvation the rebels were forced to sign a new deal with the Assad regime, which includes lifting the siege on two towns in rural Damascus in exchange for evacuating their citizens to northern Syria and allowing two rebel-besieged towns to be evacuated too.

A senior Arab diplomat in Qatar involved in the talks said that Iranian officials and Ahrar al-Sham held discussions about the four-towns swap in Qatar when Iran’s foreign minister visited Doha in March.

Those discussions also involved the freeing of 26 Qatari hostages held by unidentified gunmen in Iraq, he said.

As diplomacy in Moscow focused on the U.S. airstrikes targeting Syria, more than 2,350 people were bused out of the twin rebel-held towns of Madaya and Zabadani near Damascus, and another 5,000 from the pro-government towns of Foua and Kefraya in the country’s north.

Madaya and Zabadani, once summer resorts to Damascus, have been shattered under the cruelty of government siege. The two towns rebelled against Damascus’ authority in 2011 when demonstrations swept through the country demanding the end of President Bashar Assad’s rule.

Residents were reduced to hunting rodents and eating the leaves off trees. Photos of children gaunt with hunger shocked the world and gave new urgency to U.N. relief operations in Syria.

Foua and Kfraya, besieged by the rebels, lived under a steady hail of rockets and mortars. However, they were supplied with food and medical supplies through military airdrops.

Madaya and Zabadani are the latest in a constellation of towns once held by the opposition around Damascus to surrender to the regime.

Critics say the string of evacuations, which could see some 30,000 people moved across battle lines over the next 60 days, amounts to forced displacement along political and sectarian lines.

However, the deal was stopped on Saturday after a bomb attack targeted evacuated from the two Shiite villages near Aleppo, leaving more than 126 killed most of them are women and children.

The suicide attack

The explosion on Saturday the 15th of April in Rashidin, west of Aleppo, targeted residents who were evacuated from the rebel-besieged towns of Foua and Kefraya in Idlib province under the deal.

It shattered coaches and set cars on fire, leaving a trail of bodies including children, as the convoy waited in rebel territory near Aleppo.

A suicide bomber driving a van supposedly carrying aid supplies blew it up near the coaches, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports.

“A van was distributing crisps,” one civilian evacuee told Zaman English News. “Children started running after it. It then exploded.”

At least 45 body bags were counted at the scene of the blast, while White Helmets rescuers, who operate in rebel-held areas, said at least 100 people had been killed. Many were also injured.

The Observatory on Sunday said at least 126 people were killed in the blast, raising a previous death toll of 112.

At least 68 children were among those killed, the monitor said.

The Syrian Civil Defence, a volunteer rescue group that operates in rebel-held parts of Syria, had said on Saturday that at least 100 people were killed, while a report on Syrian state TV had given a death toll of 39.

Pictures posted on state media showed what appeared to be the aftermath of the explosion, with burned bodies and fires belching out thick black smoke.

Buses were blackened by the blast with their windows blown out.

“It appears that the explosion happened at the front of the convoy, which is about 70 buses long. Apparently it happened in an area where the sick and the injured were either being transferred or swapped,” journalist Hoda Abdel-Hamid said,

“We do understand that the casualties go into the dozens … among them women and children and some of the rebel fighters that were there to secure that convoy.”

Opposition activists said that the van that exploded belonged to Assad regime and was sent from areas under its role.

Evacuation process finished

The evacuation process was resumed on Wednesday after a few days halt due to the terror attack but was stopped again for another 48-hours.

The Observatory said the 48-hour suspension was due to rebel demands for the government to free 750 prisoners under the deal.

Rebels reached an agreement on Friday with the government for it to release 500 prisoners who will cross into opposition areas as part of the wider deal, a rebel official told Reuters.

Mohamad Abu Zeid, a spokesman for the Ahrar al-Sham group, said negotiations over the issue had concluded and the prisoners would arrive at a rebel-held area near Aleppo “within hours”.

With the transfer completed on Friday, the first phase of the population swap deal in Syria comes to an end.

A total of 8,000 residents from the pro-government villages of Foua and Kefraya – besieged for two years amid Syria’s bloody civil war by anti-government rebels – and nearly 3,000 evacuees from the rebel-held Zabadani, Madaya and surrounding areas have left their homes.

Under the deal, an estimated 30,000 people will be transferred from their hometowns over 60 days, most of them from the pro-government villages in northern Idlib.

It is one Syria’s largest population transfers, which the opposition has described as “demographic engineering”, and the first to involve a reciprocal population swap.

Assad regime’s media arm said 46 buses carrying residents of Foua and Kefraya arrived in Jibreen, an Aleppo suburb, on Friday. Some 15 buses were carrying residents and rebels from the Zabadani area, which was besieged by the government, departed for Idlib.

Asad regime forces declared that armed groups no longer have any presence in the Zabadani and Madaya areas, which government troops entered after the evacuation. The Syrian military said it had destroyed a tunnel linking the two areas.

Military, not humanitarian logic

Assad regime forces, helped by Russian air power and Iran-backed Shiite militias, has steadily ended armed opposition influence in the remaining pockets of resistance around the capital, in addition to many areas in Syria, using a series of army offensives and evacuation agreements, after years of siege, starvation, and daily bombing.

Assad regime describes the evacuation deals as “reconciliation” or “settlement agreements”, but rebels say they involve the forcible displacement of whole communities from opposition areas after years of siege and bombardment.

U.N. Syria humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland said there had been more evacuation deals this year than before, but that they appeared driven more by military priorities than humanitarian concerns.

“They seem to follow a military logic, they do not seem to put the civilians at the heart of the agreement,” he told reporters in Geneva on Thursday.

The United Nations was not involved in the evacuation of the four towns. Egeland said that it was misleading to consider them voluntary evacuations when the towns had been besieged for years.

“Besiegement should end by being lifted,” he said, “not by places being emptied from people.”

The Syrian crisis began as a peaceful demonstration against the injustice in Syria. Assad regime used to fire power and violence against the civilians and led to armed resistance. 450.000 Syrians lost their lives in the past five years according to UN estimates, and more than 12 million have lost their homes.