DAMASCUS / RASHIDIN / PARIS: Evacuations of thousands of besieged Syrians resumed Wednesday with tight security in place after a weekend bombing against those leaving government-held areas killed scores, including nearly 70 children.
A large convoy of buses set out from the government-held towns of Al-Foua and Kfarya in Idlib province, carrying 3,000 people to the rebel-held transit point of Rashidin near Aleppo, an AFP correspondent said.
At the same time, 11 buses carrying around 300 people left rebel-held Zabadani, Serghaya and Al-Jabal Sharqi in Damascus province, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group said.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, meanwhile, said French intelligence services will provide proof in the coming days that Assad’s forces used chemical weapons in an attack on April 4.
“There is an investigation underway [by] the French intelligence services and military intelligence ... it’s a question of days and we will provide proof that the regime carried out these strikes,” Ayrault told LCP television. “We have elements that will enable us to show that the regime knowingly used chemical weapons,” he said.
Ahmet Uzumcu, head of the global arms watchdog Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said Wednesday that “incontrovertible” test results from the incident showed sarin gas or a similar substance had been used.
In Rashidin, security was tight after a devastating bomb attack on evacuees at the site Saturday that according to the activist group killed 126 people, including 68 children. Most of the dead were from the two Shiite-majority towns, with a handful of aid workers and rebels guarding the convoy also killed.
Dozens of wounded were taken to hospitals in nearby rebel-held territory, while others were taken to Aleppo, which government forces regained full control of late last year.
Armed rebels were standing guard at Rashidin Wednesday and carefully inspecting vehicles arriving in the area. “We chose a different location as the gathering point for fighters from Al-Foua and Kfarya with their families, because we are obliged to protect them until they leave here,” rebel fighter Abu Obeida al-Shami said.Buses were parked in a semicircle, forming a makeshift barrier around an area in the center of a lot where evacuees including dozens of children milled. “Where do I even start? It would have been easier if we had just died. Death is so much easier than this humiliation,” elderly evacuee Abu Ahmad said. He told AFP he was preparing himself never to see his hometown of Al-Foua again.
“Someone like me, who is already 85 years old – I’m going to die tomorrow or the day after.”
Pro-government militiamen among those being evacuated from Al-Foua and Kfarya squatted next to one bus, smoking cigarettes.
Standing nearby, 55-year-old Umm Joud from Al-Foua said it was difficult to describe how she felt. “I’m not afraid, because everything is in God’s hands,” she told AFP.
“Of course I would have preferred to stay in my home, but I left for the sake of my children and their lives and futures.”
The evacuations are part of a deal between government and opposition representatives that is also seeing residents and rebels transported out from several areas under regime siege near Damascus, primarily Madaya and Zabadani. It was brokered late last month by Qatar, a longtime opposition supporter, and Iran, a key regime ally, but its implementation had been repeatedly delayed.
When Wednesday’s evacuations are complete, a total of 8,000 people should have left Al-Foua and Kfarya in exchange for 2,500 civilians and rebels from opposition areas.
Zabadani and Madaya “are now empty of any rebel presence,” said Mayyada al-Aswad, a member of the coordinating committee for the operation on the government side.
Wednesday’s evacuations mark the end of the first stage of the deal, with a second phase due to begin in June.
Al-Foua and Kfarya will be emptied entirely, with residents and fighters heading to Aleppo and then on to government-held Latakia or Damascus.
All rebels are expected to leave Madaya, Zabadani and other nearby oppositions-held areas, but civilians who want to remain may do so.
Those leaving rebel-held areas will head to Idlib province, which is held by an opposition alliance.
In all, up to 30,000 people are expected to leave under the deal.
Syrian President Bashar Assad says evacuation deals are the best way to end the 6-year-old war, but the opposition says they amount to forced relocation after years of bombardment and siege.
Syrian state television Wednesday reported another bomb blast in Aleppo city that killed six people, but the report could not be immediately confirmed. The explosion hit the southwestern neighborhood of Salaheddine, which was once on the front line between rebels and government forces before the army retook full control of the city in December.
“Thirty-two wounded people were transferred to the Aleppo University Hospital, including two to the special care unit,” Hashim Shalash, who heads Aleppo’s forensic medicine unit, told AFP.