BEIRUT (AFP) - A deal to evacuate four besieged Syrian towns began Wednesday (April 12) with an exchange of prisoners between rebels and government forces, local sources and state media said.
Thousands of people, both civilians and fighters, are expected to begin leaving government-held Fuaa and Kafraya and opposition-controlled Madaya and Zabadani later Wednesday.
The evacuations of the four besieged towns come under an agreement brokered by rebel backer Qatar and government ally Iran last month.
An AFP photographer in government-held Aleppo city saw 12 of the prisoners released by the opposition, nine of whom appeared to be suffering injuries, arriving along with eight bodies.
Syrian state news agency SANA said the four children and eight women had been transferred with the bodies of "eight martyrs" from "terrorist groups in Idlib province".
It said the exchange of prisoners marked the start of the "implementation of the first phase of the agreement".
SANA said that "19 militants" were transferred from Fuaa and Kafraya at the same time.
A source in the jihadist Tahrir al-Sham alliance confirmed the exchange.
Fuaa and Kafraya are government-held Shi'ite-majority villages in the otherwise rebel-controlled province of Idlib.
Madaya and Zabadani are opposition enclaves surrounded by regime forces in Damascus province.
The exchange marks the beginning of the implementation of the deal to evacuate the four towns, as well as part of the Yarmuk Palestinian camp in southern Damascus.
Negotiators and residents said buses had entered Madaya and Zabadani on Wednesday morning, and people were gathering their belongings to leave.
But a government coordinator for the negotiations said vehicles had yet to arrive at Fuaa and Kafraya.
"The logistical details are all ready, but the armed groups are delaying things," he told AFP.
"The entry of buses into Zabadani and Madaya was a goodwill gesture from the government but they will not leave without a simultaneous exit of the Fuaa and Kafraya convoy." More than 30,000 people are expected to be evacuated under the deal, which was postponed after objections from both sides and tensions following a suspected chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held town in Idlib province.
All 16,000 residents of Fuaa and Kafraya are expected to leave, heading to government-held Aleppo, the coastal province of Latakia or Damascus.
Civilian residents of Madaya and Zabadani will reportedly be allowed to remain if they so choose. Those who leave, along with rebels, will head to opposition territory in Idlib.
The four towns are part of an existing agreement reached in 2015 that requires aid deliveries and evacuations be carried out to all areas simultaneously.
But access has been limited, with food and medical shortages causing malnutrition, illness and even death among besieged residents.
The UN says 4.72 million Syrians are in so-called hard-to-reach areas, including 600,000 people under siege, mostly by the Syrian army, but also by rebels or the Islamic State group.
More than 320,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests.