In Syria, population transfers stalled over violence resume

In Syria, population transfers stalled over violence resume

BEIRUT — Thousands of Syrians trapped at an exchange point arrived at a temporary shelter in government-controlled Aleppo city on Friday, as one of the largest population transfers in Syria’s civil war resumed following a number of snags, including a deadly explosion.

Syrian state TV al-Ikhbariya broadcast the arrival of several buses carrying hundreds of residents from the pro-government villages of Foua and Kfarya — besieged for two years amid Syria’s bloody civil war by anti-government rebels — to Jibreen, an Aleppo suburb.

In Jibreen, a temporary shelter was set up by the government for them.

Relatives rushed to the buses to receive their loved ones, who had been stranded at an exchange point since Wednesday. Others frantically searched for missing relatives.

The buses that arrived in Aleppo on Friday were the second batch of evacuees since the operation began last week. The massive bombing struck evacuees who had waited for over 30 hours to be transferred to Jibreen on Saturday, killing at least 130 people, most of them children and government supporters.

“Whoever knows anything about my kids, please let me know,” a mother wept on al-Ikhbariya as she pleaded for information for her three kids missing since the explosion last week.

Lebanese Al-Manar TV, affiliated with Syrian government ally Hezbollah, said at least 12 bodies of those killed in the Saturday explosion were among those arriving in Aleppo.

No one claimed responsibility for the bloody explosion, which also underscored the complications besetting the transfer deal, one of Syria’s largest and the first to involve a reciprocal population swap. Under the deal, an estimated 30,000 people will be transferred from their hometowns over 60 days, most of them from the pro-government villages in northern Idlib.

At least 750 detainees from government jails are also to be released as part of the deal. Mohammed Abo Zayed, a spokesman for Ahrar al-Sham, a main rebel group negotiating the deal, said the names of those to be released are currently being worked out.

The Syrian military media arm said 36 buses carrying residents of Foua and Kfarya arrived in Jibreen on Friday. Nine other buses remain at the exchange point, apparently as details of the detainees to be released are worked out.

Some 15 buses were carrying residents and rebels from the Zabadani area, which was besieged by the government, departed for Idlib. Another three buses are also still held back. Amer Burhan, an evacuee from the pro-opposition town, said their buses began moving toward rebel-held Idlib province.

Rights groups have decried the agreement, negotiated by Iran and Qatar, as a forcible transfer that is altering the country’s demographics along political and sectarian lines.

In the last year alone, thousands of rebels, their families and supporters were forced to surrender in capitulation deals under intense government bombings and tight sieges in a number of towns and areas around the capital Damascus, as well as in Aleppo and Homs. Most of those have been transferred to rebel-held Idlib.

The Associated Press