Thousands of Syrians were stuck in and around Aleppo on Saturday as a deal to evacuate people from two Shi’ite villages in return for Sunni rebels and their families leaving two besieged towns near Damascus halted, a war monitor and activists said.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the delay was because rebels from Zabadani, one of the towns included in the deal, had not yet been granted safe passage out.
The agreement is one of several concluded in recent months that has seen President Bashar al-Assad’s government take back control of areas long besieged by his forces and their allies.
In the latest deal, hundreds of rebels and their families evacuated the town of Madaya near Damascus, and were taken to the government-held city of Aleppo. From there they will travel to Idlib province, an insurgent stronghold.
In return, pro-government fighters and residents from the Shi’ite villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, both surrounded by Idlib rebels, have left the area and reached Aleppo’s outskirts.
On Saturday, those from Madaya sat outside rows of coaches in a bus garage in government-held Aleppo, waiting to move onto Idlib, pictures sent by a pro-opposition activist showed.
Meanwhile residents from the Shi’ite villages were still waiting in insurgent territory on Aleppo’s outskirts to cross into the city, the Observatory and a witness said.
The pro-opposition activist said insurgents were saying that a smaller number of pro-government fighters had left the Shi’ite villages than was agreed.
A Madaya resident, speaking from the bus garage in Aleppo, said people had been waiting there since late on Friday night, and were not being allowed to leave.
“There’s no drinking water or food. The bus garage is small so there’s not much space to move around,” Ahmed, 24, said.
“We’re sad and angry about what has happened,” he said. Many people felt that they had been forced to leave, he said.
“There was no other choice in the end – we were besieged inside a small area in Madaya.”
Syria’s opposition says the evacuation deals, which have included areas of Aleppo and a district in the western city of Homs, amount to forced displacement of Assad’s opponents from Syria’s main urban centers.
The agreements are also causing demographic changes, they say, because those who are displaced are mostly Sunni Muslims.
Syria’s population is mostly Sunni. Assad is from the Alawite religious minority, often considered an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.
He has been backed militarily by Russia, and by Shi’ite fighters from Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah group in Syria’s six-year-old conflict.
Assad holds the military advantage over rebels in the west of the country thanks to Russia’s intervention in 2015, although the insurgents continue to fight back and have made gains in some areas.