Hundreds of fighters and civilians escape besieged Syrian areas under UN deal

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Around 450 Syrian fighters and their families were evacuated from two besieged areas yesterday under the kind of operation that the United Nations hopes can be a stepping stone toward a wider peace accord in the country’s civil war.

UN and airport sources said two planes with 330 Syrian Shi’ite fighters and civilians evacuated from two pro-government towns in northwestern Syria arrived in Beirut airport. Hundreds of Hezbollah supporters there set off fireworks in celebration.

Another plane carrying 126 mostly Sunni Muslim rebel fighters trapped in Zabadani near the Lebanese border landed at Hatay airport in southern Turkey, the sources said.

The evacuations took place under a UN-sponsored agreement brokered by regional powers, part of efforts by the United Nations to set up local deals on ceasefires and safe passage.

In return for allowing the rebels to leave, the deal allows the government of President Bashar al-Assad to restore control over areas that had been in rebel hands for the past four years.

In Zabadani, a once popular resort city now in ruins, relief workers and rebel fighters who have been holed up for months helped carry wounded young men in wheelchairs onto ambulances.

Relatives and well-wishers who had waited for hours on the Lebanese border cheered buses carrying the fighters as they drove by towards Beirut airport, and some families wept as they strained for glimpses of their loved ones, a witness said.

Zabadani, northwest of the capital Damascus, was one of the rebels’ last strongholds along the border. Much of the town was devastated in a major offensive launched in July against the insurgents by the Syrian army and its Lebanese Hezbollah allies. Only several hundred rebels remain in the town, where most civilians have fled to nearby Madaya.

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