A deal was reached on Tuesday for the evacuation of two pro-government towns in Syria, allowing thousands to leave after three years of encirclement by hardline rebels.
Foua and Kefraya in Syria's northwestern Idlib province are the last remaining towns under siege in the seven-year war. Surrounded and bombed by hostile factions, the Shiite-majority towns became both a rallying cry for the government and a playing card in rebel hands.
The residents are all expected to leave under a major agreement reached Tuesday between government ally Moscow and rebel backer Ankara, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Hundreds of people would be released from the government-run detention centers in exchange, Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.
A commander in the regional alliance that backs President Bashar al-Assad said 100 buses were heading to the two towns to evacuate around 6,000 alongside 300 Alawite civilians held by rebels.
The deal also includes the release of 34 prisoners captured by Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Hezbollah during its siege of the former rebel-held Madaya and Zabadani.
The agreement has not been confirmed by any government involved, but Syrian state media reported Tuesday that it had preliminary information on a deal to free "thousands" of people from Foua and Kefraya.
The evacuation deal reached Tuesday is not the first for the two tiny towns.
In April 2017, thousands of people in the two Shiite towns were evacuated to government-held areas in a swap that in exchange freed hundreds of Sunnis living in Madaya and Zabadani who were then besieged by the Hezbollah group.
But a blast targeting a convoy of evacuees from Foua and Kefraya left 150 people dead, most of them civilians and including 72 children. Traumatized residents left behind are now afraid that scenario might happen again.
The Observatory said the terms of the new Russia-Turkey deal included keeping the government forces from waging a military operation in Idlib.