BEIRUT: A rare UN-backed deal between Syria’s warring sides saw hundreds of fighters and civilians evacuate three towns on Monday, as bomb explosions in the regime-held city of Homs killed at least 19 people.
President Bashar al Assad’s government has agreed to several ceasefires with rebel groups in the past but Monday’s evacuation plan was one of the most elaborate in the nearly five-year war.
The United Nations has been pushing for such local deals as global powers pursue wider efforts to resolve a conflict that has left more than 250,000 people dead and forced millions from their homes.
More than 450 fighters and civilians, including injured people, began leaving three flashpoint areas as part of a six-month truce reached in September.
At least 120 people, including rebels and some civilians, crossed from the last rebel bastion on the Syrian border into Lebanon.
The Zabadani residents were to fly from Beirut to Turkey, before travelling back into opposition-held areas in Syria, said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Another 335 people, also including civilians, travelled from two government-controlled villages in northwest Syria into Turkey, he said.
Residents of Fuaa and Kafraya crossed through the Bab al Hawa border point and are to fly into Beirut to travel overland to Damascus.
According to a source, national flag carrier Turkish Airlines will fly both sets of evacuees.
“We appreciate the cooperation of all sides, of the Syrian, Turkish and Lebanese governments, and all the sides that have signed on to this humanitarian agreement,” UN Humanitarian Coordinator Yaacoub El Hillo told Al Mayadeen TV from the Syrian side of the border with Lebanon.
It is the first time the neighbouring countries are involved in such an evacuation deal.
The next part of the deal, according to the Britain-based observatory, will see humanitarian aid delivered into the towns.
Mr Rahman said the Syrian government was keen to reach such agreements as part of its “efforts to secure the capital by seizing control of rebel-held areas or through ceasefire deals”.
Lebanese television channel Al Manar broadcast live footage of the Zabadani convoy entering Lebanon.
Dozens of people gathered at the Masnaa crossing rushed the buses as ambulance sirens wailed.
The station had provided coverage earlier of bearded fighters wearing military-style fatigues boarding the buses amid bombed-out ruins in Zabadani.
Meanwhile, at least 19 people were killed and dozens injured in large bomb blasts in Homs.