BEIRUT, July 18 (Reuters)
Buses arrived on Wednesday to evacuate thousands of people from two Shi'ite villages, which Sunni Islamist rebels have besieged for years, as part of a deal under which the Syrian government is expected to release hundreds of prisoners.
The villages of al-Foua and Kefraya in Idlib province, which are loyal to the Syrian government, will be emptied of all their residents and fighters, a commander in the regional alliance that backs Damascus told Reuters.
Idlib lies in Syria's northwest corner, the last major insurgent stronghold in the country and where neighbouring Turkey has deployed forces.
Some 7,000 people will leave the two villages, said al-Manar TV, run by Lebanon's Shi'ite Hezbollah movement.
Population transfers have been a common feature of the seven-year Syrian war, which has killed an estimated half a million people and driven some 11 million people from their homes.
Most of the transfers have come at the expense of President Bashar al-Assad's opponents. Rebels and civilians have been bussed out of their hometowns to opposition territory in the north, as government forces advanced with critical help from Russia and Iran.
The opposition has decried it as a systematic policy of forcible displacement against those who oppose Assad.
The conflict took on a sectarian dimension as it swelled out of protests against Assad's rule in 2011. Shi'ite Islamist militias backed by Iran have deployed from across the region to help Assad against rebels, many of whom identified themselves as Sunni Islamists. Assad comes from the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
Opposition sources said officials from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a coalition spearheaded by Syria's former al-Qaeda offshoot, and Iran's Revolutionary Guards had negotiated the latest swap.
Under the deal, the evacuees will include Alawite hostages that insurgent factions took when they overran Idlib more than three years ago, the pro-Assad commander said.
The commander and an Islamist rebel source familiar with the secret talks said separately that Turkey was also involved in the process, which builds on a deal from last year that had not been fully implemented.
State TV said at least 88 buses had entered al-Foua and Kefraya in Idlib province so far on Wednesday, along with Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) ambulances for sick residents.
In April last year, thousands of people were shuttled out of the two villages to government territory in an agreement.
In exchange, hundreds of residents left two towns at the border with Lebanon, Madaya and Zabadani, which were in the hands of Sunni rebels at the time and under siege from pro-government forces. They were moved to Idlib.
But other parts of the deal - evacuating the people remaining in al-Foua and Kefraya and releasing 1,500 detainees from state prisons - did not go through at the time.