Wounded fighters, civilians evacuated from Syria

Hassan Ammar and Bassem Mroue
Associated Press

Masnaa, Lebanon — More than 100 insurgents and their families crossed from Syria into Lebanon in buses and ambulances on Monday as part of a U.N.-backed truce reached with the government that saw a separate group of Syrians from two insurgent-besieged Shiite villages crossed into Turkey.

The fighters and their families will now be flown to Turkey, while the villagers, who were also evacuated on buses and ambulances, will be transported via Lebanon to government-held parts of Syria in a coordinated process, according to an activist group and media reports.

The truce deal reached in September, which provides for the transfer of thousands of Shiite and Sunni civilians and fighters, is one of a number of ground-level deals to end fighting in parts of Syria. Earlier this month, scores of fighters and their families began leaving a rebel-held neighborhood in the central city of Homs after years of combat.

“The process is ongoing at a good pace,” Yacoub El Hillo, the U.N. Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Syria, told the Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen channel shortly after the buses and ambulances arrived at the Syrian side on the border with Lebanon.

He said the next step is to bring humanitarian assistance in the coming days to besieged areas that are included in this agreement.

A Turkish plane that landed in Beirut on Monday afternoon will be used to transfer the rebels and their families to Turkey, which is one of the main allies of insurgents battling to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad. The nearly five-year conflict has claimed over 250,000 lives and generated more than 4 million refugees.

Airport officials said the plane will return to Turkey while another plane takes the Shiite villagers from Turkey to Lebanon later on Monday. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the operation.

The deal has raised concerns about forced demographic change in Syria, a Sunni-majority country with Christian and other minorities. Assad’s family and other top officials hail from the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and the government is allied with Shiite-majority Iran and the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah. The Sunni-led opposition has accused Assad and his allies of trying to clear Sunnis out of government-held areas.

The fighters who were evacuated from the Syrian town of Zabadani are Sunni Muslims, while those coming from the northern villages of Foua and Kfarya are Shiites.

As the evacuations were taking place, twin bombings struck a government-held neighborhood in Homs, killing at least 19 and wounding more than a hundred, according to state TV. Homs Governor Talal Barrazi said a car bomb exploded, and that minutes later a suicide bomber detonated his explosives belt among people gathered at the scene.

Footage aired on state TV showed widespread destruction in the area as firefighters tried to extinguish the blaze. Dead bodies could be seen in the street. Barrazi said the attacks came in response to the reconciliation deal in the city.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on local Syrian activists, said the blasts killed 32 and wounded 90.

In the northern city of Aleppo, meanwhile, opposition fighters shelled government-held neighborhoods, killing at least seven, according to Syria’s state news agency, SANA. The Observatory said the shelling killed seven and wounded 40.

Zabadani, a former mountain resort near the Lebanese border and the highway linking Beirut to Damascus, has been relatively quiet since September, when the deal was reached. It had previously been subjected to intense attacks by government forces and Hezbollah fighters hoping to capture the strategic town.

On the Lebanese side of the border, dozens of people, including refugees from Zabadani who have been living in Lebanon, gathered to welcome the evacuated fighters, carrying banners describing them as “heroes.” Women and children brought flowers to toss at the evacuees once they cross the border.

Shortly before sunset, more than 40 ambulances, buses and SUVs crossed into Lebanon and headed directly to Beirut without stopping. Dozens of Lebanese and Syrian refugees stood on the sides of the road waving to the fighters and their families.

Syrian state TV said 123 wounded fighters and their families will leave the predominantly Sunni Zabadani, while the Observatory said 129 civilians and fighters will be brought to Beirut before being flown to Turkey.

The Observatory said 338 civilians will leave Foua and Kfarya and will later be flown from Turkey to Lebanon.

George Kitane, the head of paramedics at the Lebanese Red Cross, told the private satellite station LBC that they brought into Lebanon 126 fighters and family members. It was not immediately possible to reconcile the conflicting accounts.

Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV reported live earlier from Zabadani, showing dozens of bearded men— many of them wounded — being searched and having their names checked before boarding buses.

Opposition fighters could be seen on balconies and roofs of surrounding buildings. A wounded fighter was carried on a stretcher into a Syrian Arab Red Crescent ambulance that was expected to ferry him to the border where he will be given to the Lebanese Red Cross.

In Beirut, security was tighter than usual at the city’s Rafik Hariri International Airport.