Evacuation underway in four besieged Syrian towns

Following a deal brokered by Qatar and Iran, people began leaving government-controlled Foah and Kefraya and rebel-held Madaya and Zabadani. For the UN, the situation in the four towns is "catastrophic" with thousands "trapped in a cycle of daily violence and deprivation".

Damascus (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The Syrian government and rebel forces have begun an operation to move people away from four besieged towns.

People from Foah and Kefraya, two government-held towns in north-western Syria, have arrived in Rashideen, west of Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, recaptured by government troops in December.

Similar operations have begun in rebel-held Madaya and Zabadani, near Damascus. The humanitarian crisis in Madaya had elicited appeals for action, including from Card Mario Zenari, apostolic nuncio to Syria.

More than 30,000 people are expected to be evacuated under the deal brokered last month by pro-rebel Qatar and pro-regime Iran, allowing for the exchange of rebel and government prisoners.

Agence France Presse reported that 80 buses from Idlib province arrived in Rashideen. Evacuation began this morning. 

The deal was postponed several times as the two sides failed to overcome a number of obstacles, including last week’s chemical attack on rebel-held Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province. 

In March, the United Nations described the situation in the four towns as "catastrophic" with more than 64,000 civilians "trapped in a cycle of daily violence and deprivation".

During the siege, many people are reported to have died as a result of shortages of food or medicine.

Foah and Kefraya, most of whose residents are Shia Muslims, have been encircled by rebels and al-Qaeda-linked Sunni jihadists since March 2015.

Madaya and Zabadani, which are predominantly Sunni, have been besieged since June 2015 by the Syrian army and fighters from Lebanon's Shia Islamist Hezbollah movement.

Overall, some 4.7 million people live in hard-to-reach and besieged areas in Syria, including 644,000 in UN-declared besieged locations.

Meanwhile, the foreign ministers of Russia, Syria and Iran are due to meet in Moscow in the first meeting of the three allies since the United States launched 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase near Homs.

Washington says its strike was in response to a Syrian government chemical attack in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, in which more than 80 people were killed. Western powers also blamed the Assad regime.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has denied carrying out a chemical attack, calling the reports "fabricated". So far, there has been no independent verification of the incident.

The ministers meeting in the Russian capital are expected to consider their next move, including a counter-investigation to prove that the Syrian government was not involved.