Wounded fighters, civilians evacuated from Syria

AP News
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Posted: Dec 28, 2015 5:03 PM
Wounded fighters, civilians evacuated from Syria

BEIRUT (AP) — Hundreds of people from opposite sides in Syria's civil war were evacuated from contested areas on Monday under a U.N.-backed truce, with one group headed to Turkey and another en route to areas controlled by Syrian President Bashar Assad.

One group, with more than 100 rebels and family members, crossed from Syria into Lebanon in buses and ambulances, and then took off from Beirut airport for Turkey, a main ally of fighters battling to overthrow Assad, airport officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the operation.

The other group, residents of two insurgent-besieged Shiite villages in northern Syria, was evacuated first to Turkey in similar vehicles before departing for Beirut from Hatay airport, said Izzet Sahin, a spokesman for the Turkish Islamic charity organization IHH. Activists and media reports say these people are headed to a suburb of the Syrian capital, Damascus, which is under the control of Assad's forces.

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 several years of combat.

But the agreement has raised concerns about forced demographic change in Syria, a Sunni-majority country with Christian and other minorities, whose nearly five-year conflict has claimed over 250,000 lives and generated more than 4 million refugees.

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 and family members who were evacuated from the predominantly Sunni town of Zabadani are Sunni Muslims, and Syrian state TV said the group included many wounded fighters. The evacuees from the northern villages of Foua and Kfarya are Shiites.

In a statement, the U.N. in Syria said more than 450 people had been evacuated in total, including 338 people from the two Shiite villages and 125 people from the Zabadani area.

"Today's humanitarian action shows that even in the middle of fierce conflicts, agreements can be reached, solely for the purpose of alleviating human suffering," said Marianne Gasser, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross Delegation in Syria, which helped facilitate the evacuation.

But as the evacuations were taking place, twin bombings struck a government-held neighborhood in Homs, killing at least 19 people and wounding more than a hundred, according to state TV. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on local Syrian activists, said the blasts killed 32 and wounded 90. It was not immediately possible to reconcile the differing casualty figures.

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 bombings came in response to the reconciliation deal.

In the northern city of Aleppo, meanwhile, opposition fighters shelled government-held neighborhoods, killing at least seven people, 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.

Earlier on the Lebanese side of the border, dozens of people including women and children waved and tossed flowers at the evacuees as they welcomed their motorcade that included over 40 ambulances. Some of the greeters were themselves refugees from Zabadani who had fled earlier to Lebanon. Some carried banners describing the evacuated fighters as "Heroes."

But when the motorcade passed through a Hezbollah-dominated neighborhood in Beirut, the evacuees were met by dozens of hostile Hezbollah supporters carrying the Shiite group's yellow flag, some of whom shouted insults and even threw shoes. The airport itself was under tighter-than-normal security.

Reporting live earlier from Zabadani, Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV showed 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 rebel fighter was shown being carried on a stretcher into a Syrian Arab Red Crescent ambulance.

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Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, and Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed to this report.