Evacuations from besieged Syrian towns end after two-day halt
By Ellen Francis
BEIRUT (Reuters) - The evacuation of Syrian civilians and fighters from four besieged towns was completed on Friday after a 48-hour halt, as part of a mediated swap deal between the warring sides, state media and a rebel official said.
Thousands of civilians and pro-government fighters from the Shi'ite towns of al-Foua and Kefraya arrived in army-held Aleppo, a war monitor said.
Evacuees from the two rebel-besieged towns had been stuck at a staging area outside the city, where a bomb attack on an evacuation convoy killed scores of people last week.
In exchange, busloads of rebels and their relatives from Zabadani left a second nearby transit point for rebel territory, state television said. A witness told Reuters that 100 prisoners released by the government as part of the swap had also arrived in the rebel-held territory outside Aleppo.
The towns of Zabadani and Madaya, which had long been under siege by pro-government forces near Damascus, came under state rule this week after Sunni rebels and civilians were evacuated.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said the 48-hour suspension was due to rebel demands for the government to free 750 prisoners under the deal.
Rebels reached an agreement on Friday with the government for it to release the first 500 prisoners who would cross into opposition areas as part of the wider deal, a rebel official told Reuters. The other 250 prisoners would be released in coming days, he said.
Mohamad Abu Zeid, a spokesman for the Ahrar al-Sham group, said negotiations over the issue had concluded and the prisoners would arrive at a rebel-held area near Aleppo "within hours". Continued...