Thousands Expected to Leave Four Besieged Towns in Northern Syria
By VOA News April 16, 2017
About 3,000 people are set for evacuation Sunday from four besieged towns in northern Syria as part of a transfer deal that was halted for about 24 hours by a deadly blast that killed and wounded many.
Those being evacuated come from the pro-government villages of Foua and Kfaryam, and opposition-held towns of Zabadani and Madaya. All four places have been under siege for the past two years.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Sunday about 120 buses and ambulances have made their way into Foua and Kfaryam to assist with the population transfer to Aleppo.
The evacuation comes after an apparent car bombing that targeted a bus convoy carrying people to safety in the Rashideen area, near Aleppo.
"While the United Nations was not involved in this agreement or evacuation process, we are ready to scale up our support to evacuees," Stephen O'Brien, the U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator, said in a statement.
O'Brien said humanitarian organizations, including the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and U.N. partners, are providing assistance to the injured, including transfer to hospitals.
He also urged everyone involved to "protect civilians and distinguish between military and civilian targets."
The Syrian Observatory said at least 126 people had died in the attack, with the death toll expected to rise. Most of the victims were believed to be residents of two Shi'ite villages that had been surrounded by Islamists for months.
Rami Abdurrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory, said 109 of the victims were from Foua and Kfarya, among them 13 women and 68 children.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility. But Sunni jihadist groups, including the Syrian affiliate of al-Qaida, operate in the area and routinely attack Shi'ites, whom they consider apostates.
The U.S. Embassy in Syria tweeted, "The United States strongly condemns today's barbaric attacks against innocent civilians, including women & children, in northern #Syria."
A deal between the Damascus government and opposition fighters guaranteeing the safety of the villagers stalled Friday, stranding thousands of evacuees for hours before the attack unfolded on the outskirts of Aleppo.
Video on state television later showed charred bodies and mangled buses, which had been carrying pro-government Shi'ite fighters and civilians from the besieged villages toward the government-controlled city. Other footage showed ambulances ferrying the wounded to area hospitals.
Far to the south, the evacuation deal – brokered by Iran and Qatar – simultaneously granted hundreds of Sunni insurgents and their families near Damascus safe passage to Idlib province near the Turkish border.
By late Saturday, monitors from the Syrian Observatory said the convoy near Aleppo was again under way, while official Syrian media said the first buses carrying Shi'ite evacuees had reached government safety in Aleppo.
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