Convoy Crosses Into Syria for Border Village Evacuation

MASNAA, Lebanon (AP) -

Syrian opposition fighters, some on wheelchairs, stretchers or using crutches, gathered Monday in a square in the Syrian mountain resort of Zabadani and boarded buses and ambulances that began taking them to Lebanon from where they will be flown to Turkey.

The evacuation is part of a U.N.-backed truce deal reached in September for two key Syrian battleground areas that will see the transfer of thousands of Shiite and Sunni civilians and fighters from one area to another.

In addition to Zabadani, evacuations began in two Shiite villages in northern Syria where wounded fighters and some civilians will be taken by land to Turkey before boarding a plane that will bring them to Lebanon on their way to Syria.

The agreement is another example of limited deals to end fighting in specific areas in Syria. Earlier this month, scores of fighters and their families began leaving a rebel-held neighborhood in the central city of Homs ending years of combat.

Zabadani has been relatively quiet since September when the deal was reached. The mountain resort had been subjected to intense attacks by government forces and members of Lebanon’s Hizbullah group who were trying to capture the strategic area that is a few miles from the Lebanon border and the highway that links Beirut with the Syrian capital, Damascus.

Earlier Monday, a convoy of some 30 Lebanese Red Cross ambulances crossed into Syria from Lebanon to evacuate dozens of opposition fighters and civilians from Zabadani.

Syrian state media said 123 wounded fighters and their families will leave the predominantly Sunni Zabadani while the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 129 civilians and fighters will be brought to Beirut from where they will be flown to Turkey.

The Observatory said 338 civilians will leave the Syrian Shiite villages of Foua and Kfarya toward Turkey and will later be flown to Lebanon. The Observatory said the evacuation also began in Foua and Kfarya.

Hizbullah’s Al-Manar channel was reporting live from Zabadani, showing dozens of bearded men— many of them wounded — being searched and having their names checked before boarding buses.

Opposition fighters could be seen on balconies and roofs of surrounding buildings. A wounded fighter was carried on a stretcher into a Syrian Red Crescent ambulance that was expected to ferry him to the border where he will be given to the Lebanese Red Cross.

In Beirut, security was tighter than usual at the city’s Rafik Hariri International Airport where the evacuees are scheduled to be flown to Turkey later Monday.