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Rare evacuation of Syria towns as deadly blasts hit Homs

Gulfnews.com

A convoy of ambulances carrying more than 125 fighters from the besieged rebel-held Syrian town of Zabadani arrive at the Masnaa border crossing between Lebanon and Syria, December 28, 2015.

Beirut: A rare UN-backed deal between Syria’s warring sides saw hundreds of fighters and civilians evacuate three towns on Monday, as bomb blasts in the regime-held city of Homs killed at least 14 people.

President Bashar Al Assad’s regime 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.

A convoy of more than 120 rebels and wounded from the flashpoint Syrian border town of Zabadani crossed into Lebanon on Monday as part of a UN-backed truce.

The convoy included seven buses and 22 ambulances and was accompanied by Lebanese security forces from the Masnaa border crossing, the journalist at the scene said.

The United Nations has been pushing for such local deals as global powers pursue wider efforts to resolve a conflict that left more than 250,000 dead and forced millions from their homes.

More than 450 fighters and civilians, including wounded, began quitting three flashpoint areas in Syria as part of a six-month truce reached in September.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, more than 120 fighters and wounded on Monday began leaving Zabadani, the last rebel bastion on Syria’s border with Lebanon.

They were to travel across the border to Lebanon and fly from Beirut to Turkey, before travelling back into opposition-held areas in Syria, Observatory head Rami Abdul Rahman said.

Another 335 people, including civilians, began travelling from two regime-controlled villages in northwestern Syria to other government areas, also via the neighbouring countries, he said.

Residents of the mainly Shiite villages of Fuaa and Kafraya were to cross into Turkey, then fly into Beirut and travel overland into Damascus.

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, would see humanitarian aid delivered into the towns.

The Observatory’s Abdul Rahman said Al Assad’s regime 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”.

Al Manar, a Lebanese television station affiliated with pro-Al Assad Shiite group Hezbollah, broadcast live footage of the evacuation of Zabadani.

Amid the ruins of bombed-out buildings, dozens of bearded fighters wearing military-style fatigues boarded large buses.

Residents on crutches hobbled into ambulances, as rebel fighters watched from nearby rooftops.

Al Manar also provided live coverage of the evacuations from Fuaa and Kafraya, showing dozens of people, among them women and children, gathering near buses and ambulances.

Similar ceasefire deals have been implemented in other parts of the country throughout Syria’s war, often after crippling sieges of rebel-held areas.

Government figures and local leaders reached a deal last week to evacuate thousands of militants and civilians from southern Damascus, but the agreement was apparently derailed after the death of rebel chief Zahran Alloush on Friday.

Alloush, the head of Jaish Al Islam, the foremost rebel group in Damascus province, was killed in an air strike claimed by Syria’s government.

In one of the most significant such deals so far, anti-government rebels earlier this month quit the last opposition-held district of the central city of Homs, once dubbed “the capital of the revolution.”

But violence has since rocked the city.

On Monday, at least 14 people were killed and dozens wounded in large bomb blasts in the city’s Al Zahraa neighbourhood, state television reported.

It said two explosions caused by car bombs and a blast caused by a suicide attacker wearing an explosives-laden belt hit Al Zahraa’s main square.

The station broadcast scenes of chaos in the central city, as firetrucks tried to extinguish flaming cars and rescue workers carried bloodied victims.

The residents of Al-Zahraa are mostly Alawites, the minority sect of Syria’s ruling clan.

“These terrorist, cowardly, and desperate attacks come in response to the growing spirit of national reconciliation throughout Syria,” Prime Minister Wael Al Halqi said in comments carried by state news agency SANA.

The Observatory confirmed the blasts and reported at least 32 dead.

The attack came less than three weeks after the Islamic State jihadist group claimed explosions in the same neighbourhood that left 16 people dead.

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(via Gulfnews.com)

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