BEIRUT: Two thousand Syrian Islamist fighters are expected to be evacuated soon from besieged, rebel-held areas of southern Damascus in a deal brokered by the United Nations, a Hezbollah TV station said on Friday.
The militants include fighters of Islamic State and the Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s offshoot in Syria. Manar TV said 18 buses had arrived to start taking them and 1,500 family members to areas under the control of IS and other rebel groups.
It was not clear whether the buses were provided by the U.N. or by the Syrian army.
Manar TV said the militants would also be handing in their heavy weapons to the Syrian army under what it said was a multi-party deal under U.N. auspices.
The rebels’ capitulation was forced by a government siege over several years that squeezed the flow of food and humanitarian aid. The Syrian authorities agreed to their evacuation in the hope of reasserting control of the strategic area where fighters from other factions are also lodged, only 4 km (2.5 miles) south of central Damascus.
It was the latest of several local ceasefires and safe-passage agreements between rival Syrian factions, as the United Nations, Syria’s neighbors and world powers step up efforts to end the civil war that has killed over a quarter of a million people in almost five years.
One such deal, brokered with support from Iran and Turkey, halted fighting in the town of Zabadani on the Lebanese border, and in two villages in the northwest.
Another, in the last rebel-held district of the city of Homs, allowed rebels and their families to leave a besieged area. The U.N. said that agreement could help pave the way for a nationwide truce.
The U.N. Security Council on Dec. 18 unanimously approved a resolution endorsing an international road map for a Syrian peace process, a rare show of consensus among major powers.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said on Thursday that Damascus was ready to take part in peace talks in Geneva and hoped that the dialogue would help it form a national unity government.