A convoy of buses has reached four towns in Syria to transfer civilians from areas besieged by the regime to rebel-held areas and vice versa under a deal brokered by Qatar and Iran.
The Syrian regime and rebels have exchanged 30 prisoners and nine bodies, part of a population-swap agreement to evacuate four besieged areas in different parts of the country, a Syrian official and an opposition-monitoring group said on Wednesday.
The exchange was part of a deal between Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad and the rebels brokered by Qatar and Iran. Critics say the agreement that will swap over 10,000 residents within Syria was forced displacement. Both sides also agreed to swap prisoners.
These transfers are taking place in Syria as the US and Russia huddle on how to dial down the war. Last week's chemical attacks on civilians were blamed on the Syrian regime, a Russia ally.
If things go as planned, this will be the first successful population swap at this scale. Critics have called it a sectarian cleansing of sorts as the relocations match the sectarian identity of the population being moved.
Hakim Baghdadi, a member of the relief committee for two rebel-held villages in Idlib province in Syria, said on Wednesday the overnight release was overseen by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. The Red Crescent had no immediate comment.
Regime-run media said rebels released eight women, four children and eight bodies. Pro-government militias freed 19 gunmen and released one body.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitoring group, said convoys were moving towards the four towns and evacuations were expected to start on Wednesday morning.
More than 3,500 people from the strategic town of Zabadani and Madaya which are besieged by the regime to dislodge the rebels will be relocated to rebel-controlled areas.
At least 15,000 people from two towns in Idlib province, Kefraya and Fuaa – the population of which is predominantly Shia and pro-regime – which are surrounded by rebels will be sent to regime-controlled areas.
This is expected to be the largest evacuation deal in Syria, involving 20,000 people on the ground. It will be implemented by the Syrian regime and rebel groups such as Ahrar al Sham and Tahrir al Sham.