Convoy crosses into Syria for border village evacuation

UN monitors (background) visit a Syrian military outpost in the city of Zabadani in the Rif of Damascus on May 6, 2012.

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Last Updated Dec 28, 2015 11:26 AM EST

MASNAA, Lebanon - Syrian opposition fighters, some on wheelchairs, stretchers or crutches, headed Monday in ambulances and buses from the Syrian mountain resort of Zabadani toward the Lebanon border, where they will be flown to Turkey.

At the same time, buses and ambulances carrying Syrians from two northern Syrian villages moved toward the border with Turkey before crossing; later in the day they will be flown to Lebanon on their way to Syria, according to an activist group and media reports.

The evacuation is part of a U.N.-backed truce deal reached in September for two key Syrian battleground areas that will see the transfer of thousands of Shiite and Sunni civilians and fighters from one area to another.

The agreement is another example of limited ground-level deals to end fighting in specific areas in Syria. Earlier this month, scores of fighters and their families began leaving a rebel-held neighborhood in the central city of Homs ending 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.

The deal has sparked some concern about forced demographic changes in the Syrian civil war, now in its fifth year, which has already displaced nearly half of Syria's pre-war population and killed more than 250,000 people. The Syrian opposition has accused President Bashar Assad's government of working with its allies, including Iran, to move populations around and clear Sunnis out of government-held areas.

The fighters who were evacuated from Zabadani are Sunni Muslims while those who are 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 minutes later a suicide bomber wearing an explosive belt detonated his device among people gathered to inspect the damage.

Footage aired on state TV showed widespread destruction in the area as firefighters tried to extinguish the blaze and 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 said the blasts killed 32 and wounded 90.

Zabadani has been relatively quiet since September when the deal was reached. The mountain resort had been subjected to intense attacks by government forces and members of Lebanon's Hezbollah group who were trying to capture the strategic area that is located a few miles from the Lebanese border and the highway that links Beirut with the Syrian capital, Damascus.

Earlier Monday, a convoy of more than 20 Lebanese Red Cross ambulances and SUVs crossed into Syria from Lebanon to evacuate dozens of opposition fighters and civilians from Zabadani.

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." Some women and children carried flowers to throw them at the evacuees once they cross the border.

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 where they will be flown to Turkey.

The Observatory said 338 civilians will leave the Syrian Shiite villages of Foua and Kfarya toward Turkey and will later be flown to Lebanon. The Observatory said those evacuation had also begun and the residents were on their way to Turkey.

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 where the evacuees are scheduled to be flown to Turkey later Monday.