Evacuation of four Syria towns delayed

Convoy of UN aid on outskirts of Kafraya

DAMASCUS - The implementation of a deal to evacuate four besieged Syrian towns has been delayed over last-minute negotiations, a monitor and government negotiator said on Tuesday.
The evacuation of more than 30,000 people from the towns of Fuaa, Kafraya, Madaya and Zabadani, brokered by rebel supporter Qatar and regime ally Iran, was scheduled to start Tuesday.
But both the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor and one of the government's point-people on the deal said it had been delayed.
Fuaa and Kafraya are government-held Shiite-majority villages in the otherwise rebel-held province of Idlib, while Madaya and Zabadani are opposition enclaves surrounded by regime forces in Damascus province.
The Observatory said residents in all four towns had expressed reservations about the evacuations, which would probably take place later in the week.
Negotiations were also ongoing about the status of Madaya and Zabadani after the evacuation, said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based monitoring group.
"The issue is whether the civilians will leave, because some want to stay, and whether the regime forces will enter Madaya and Zabadani in full, or there will be an agreement just to raise the flag," he said.
All 16,000 residents of Fuaa and Kafraya are expected to leave under the deal, which prompted resistance from locals, the Observatory said.
Hassan Sharaf, who is coordinating the deal on behalf of the government, confirmed the delay but blamed it on disagreement among the various rebel factions controlling the route between Fuaa and Kafraya and government territory further west.
"For the agreement to be successful, there needs to be a clear, public, solid consensus among them so the residents of the two towns can be reassured," he said.
"The process is complicated, it needs patience and deep breaths," Sharaf said.
Syria's government has negotiated a series of "reconciliation deals" with formerly rebel-held towns, offering fighters safe passage in exchange for surrender.
In some cases army troops enter the areas after the deal is implemented, but in others the government flag has simply been raised and administrative control resumed.
The four towns are part of an existing deal reached in 2015 that has seen simultaneous evacuations and aid deliveries, the last of which took place in November.
But the aid has proved insufficient, with reports of malnutrition and deaths from lack of food and medical care in the towns.
At least 600,000 people are living under siege in Syria, according to the United Nations, with another four million people in so-called "hard-to-reach" areas.
More than 320,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began with anti-government protests in March 2011.