450 fighters, civilians evacuated from beseiged Syrian towns cross into Turkey, Lebanon

Fighters from a coalition of rebel groups escorting Syrian Arab Red Crescent ambulances evacuating fighters and civilians from al-Foua and Kefraya in Syria to Turkey, on Dec 28, 2015.
Fighters from a coalition of rebel groups escorting Syrian Arab Red Crescent ambulances evacuating fighters and civilians from al-Foua and Kefraya in Syria to Turkey, on Dec 28, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Buses and ambulances carrying around 450 fighters and civilians evacuated from two besieged areas in Syria crossed into Turkey and Lebanon on Monday (Dec 28), sources at the border crossings said.

Under a United Nations-sponsored deal agreed by warring parties, more than 125 fighters from the besieged rebel-held town of Zabadani near the border with Lebanon are en route to Beirut airport to board a plane to Turkey.

Simultaneously, around 330 civilians and injured fighters trapped in two pro-government Shi'ite villages in north-west Syria are heading to the Turkish city of Hatay to take a plane to Beirut, aid workers said.

Ambulances and buses entered Zabadani on Monday to ferry scores of the insurgents.

Under the deal, rebel fighters holed up for months in the town near the Lebanese border have been promised safe passage to Beirut airport, then on to Turkey.

Relief workers and rebel fighters helped carry several young men in wheelchairs onto ambulances in a square in Zabadani, one witness told Reuters.

Much of the town was devastated in a major offensive launched in July against the insurgents by the Syrian army and its allies from the Lebanese Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah.

The United Nations and foreign governments have tried to broker local ceasefires and safe-passage agreements as steps towards the wider goal of ending Syria's near five-year civil war.

Iran, which backs the government, and Turkey, which backs the rebels, helped organise local ceasefires in Zabadani and the two villages in Idlib in September in the first phase of the deal overseen by International Committee of the Red Cross.

The mostly Sunni Muslim rebel fighters going to Turkey would then be able to go back to rebel-held areas in Syria through the northern Turkish border or stay for treatment, according to rebel sources close to the negotiations.

The Shi'ite Syrians are holed up in an areas mostly under Sunni rebel control and would be able to get to Lebanon where Hezbollah would be able to watch over them, added the sources.

They are then expected to go back to other parts Syria, Syrian Minister of National Reconciliation Ali Haider said on Hezbollah's Manar TV station on Monday.