Zabadani militants, civilians arrive in Lebanon under UN-brokered deal

Published December 28th, 2015 - 04:53 GMT

More than 200 wounded Syrian rebel fighters and civilians reached Lebanon Monday en route to Turkey via the Beirut airport, in the second phase of a UN-backed agreement between combatants in Syria's nearly five-year-old conflict.

The rebels and civilians who had been trapped in three Syrian towns were evacuated Thursday morning.

Dozens of relatives welcomed them at the Masnaa border crossing in Lebanon's Bekaa, cheering as they arrived and waving the three-star flag of the Syrian opposition.

Other pro-rebel Syrian refugees and Lebanese citizens also gathered at the border point in a show of solidarity with the fighters, shouting "Allahu Akbar" (God is great).

Sources told The Daily Star a total of 123 people - 70 wounded militants and 53 women, children and elderly suffering from deterioration in their overall health - were evacuated from Zabadani, a Syrian town near the Lebanese border.

In the rebel-held Shiite villages of Kefraya and al-Fouaa in the northwestern province of Idlib, a total of 338 wounded fighters and civilians were evacuated, according to the sources.

They were taken by the Syrian Red Crescent to the Lebanese border crossing at Masnaa, where they were met by delegates from the Lebanese Red Cross (LRC) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

A convoy of 22 LRC ambulances, two ICRC cars and several buses had arrived earlier at Masnaa escorted by Lebanon's General Security.

The deal, under the auspices of ICRC, has allowed scores of rebel fighters, many of whom are wounded and have been holed up for months in the war-ravaged town of Zabadani, to have safe passage to the Beirut airport and from there to Turkey, their final destination.

Simultaneously, around 300 families in the two besieged Shiite towns headed in an overland convoy to the Turkish border from where they will then fly to Beirut.

The route via Turkey was the safest option for the families, as traveling through Syria would have taken them through Idlib, where a patchwork of rebels controls different areas.

An airport source told The Daily Star that two Turkish planes were preparing to fly to Beirut to transport the Syrian Shiite families, while another plane in Lebanon was preparing to fly to Turkey to transport the Syrian rebels and civilians. It said the planes would fly out together as part of the deal.

The UN and foreign governments have tried to broker local ceasefires and safe-passage agreements as steps towards the wider goal of ending Syria's war, in which more than 250,000 people have been killed.

Iran and Turkey, which back opposing sides in the Syrian conflict, helped bring about the local ceasefires in Zabadani and in the two villages in Idlib in September, in the first phase of the deal.

Zabadani, which lies in Syria's mountanious Qalamoun area, had been the focus of an offensive by Hezbollah and the Syrian army against insurgent groups. The area is of importance to Assad because of its proximity to the Syrian capital Damascus and the Lebanese border.

Insurgent groups have in turn launched attacks on the two Shi'ite villages that intensified after most of Idlib province fell to rebels after a series of advances against the army this year.

Earlier this month Syrian government officials said they had agreed on a deal for rebel fighters to withdraw from the last insurgent-held area of the city of Homs with their weapons as part of a local ceasefire agreement.

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