Syrian deal to evacuate tens of thousands of people begins

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Residents of Foua and Kefraya were evacuated on board 75 buses at 2 a.m. local time and were transported to Ramouseh area on the outskirts of Aleppo, waiting for the buses carrying militants and civilians from Zabadani and Madaya to be transferred to the town of Jarabulus as part of an evacuation deal, according to Tasnim dispatches. Residents of Madaya and Zabadani will, in turn, go to the rebel-held areas close to Idlib and Jarablus.

"The 'Four Towns agreement, ' which previously allowed for aid deliveries and medical evacuations for the towns of Madaya and Zabadani in return for reciprocal measures for Al Fu'ah and Kefraya in Idlib, remained dysfunctional after breaking down in the fall of 2016", said Siege Watch, a United States think-tank which tracks the Syrian conflict, in its most recent report.

Syrian Red Crescent ambulances carry the sick and wounded from government-held towns to the rebel-held Rashideen, west of Aleppo. However, critics fear that the agreement forces people into demographic change.

If the evacuations are completed, they would be the first in number of rounds stretching over two months to evacuate some 30,000 Syrians from besieged areas, in a deal struck by the opposition and the regime.

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Pro-government forces have held the two towns under twin sieges for almost two years, leading residents to hunt rodents and boil grass to stave off hunger in the winter months.

The deal, which began on Wednesday following a delay, is an an exchange of prisoners between rebels and government forces.

Civilian residents of Madaya and Zabadani will reportedly be allowed to remain if they choose. They will have to pledge allegiance to President Assad's government and swear off any dissent.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the beginning of the evacuation.

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Most of the evacuees from the two mainly Shia towns were women, children or elderly people.

Syria's population is mostly Sunni Muslim.

Earlier in April, thousands of rebel fighters and their families were evacuated to the Idlib province as thousands of people from the Shia towns of Foua and Kefraya headed to regime-held parts of Aleppo. But Yasser Abdelatif, a media official for the ultraconservative rebel group Ahrar al-Sham, said the towns will be depopulated completely.

The evacuation deal brokered by Qatar, negotiating on behalf of the rebels, and Iran, on behalf of the government, in March.

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