DARAA, Syria: Syrian rebels and their relatives began evacuating the southern city of Daraa on Sunday, an AFP correspondent and a monitor said, more than seven years after the country’s ill-fated uprising erupted there.
The transfers were part of a cease-fire deal brokered by government ally Russia, and came after more than two weeks of ferocious bombardment of the city and surrounding province of the same name.
On Sunday, hundreds of fighters and some of their relatives, carrying suitcases packed with clothes, boarded around 15 buses in Daraa city, AFP’s correspondent there said.
The vehicles were parked on a main thoroughfare connecting the city’s government-held north with its rebel-held south.
The AFP correspondent said the buses were searched by Russian military forces before setting off just after midday for the rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said an estimated 1,400 people were expected to be evacuated in a single group on Sunday.
They included rebels from the broader province, said the head of the Britain-based group, Rami Abdel Rahman.
“Buses began moving from the gathering point toward the edge of the city to be searched,” Abdel Rahman told AFP.
After securing Damascus and outlying areas of the capital, President Bashar Assad’s regime on June 19 launched a ferocious offensive against Daraa, with support from Russia.
Moscow and Damascus used a carrot-and-stick strategy to military take over some towns while securing the negotiated surrender of others.
They reached a deal with rebels in early July for all of Daraa province, then agreed on terms for the city on Wednesday.
Rebels began handing over their heavy weapons on Saturday and continued to do so on Sunday morning.