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Rebels reach north Syria after south evacuations

© AFP | A Syrian child looks through the windows of a bus carrying rebels and their families from the southern province of Quneitra to northern Syria on on July 21, 2018

MOREK (SYRIE) (AFP) - 

Hundreds of rebels and their families evacuated from southern Syria after a deal was struck with the regime arrived Saturday in the country's northwest, an AFP correspondent said.

The evacuations from Quneitra, which borders the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, came after a Russia-brokered agreement was reached earlier this week to see rebels hand over the territory to the Syrian regime.

Around 50 buses transporting fighters and their families reached the Morek transit route in the north of Hama province, which links regime and rebel-held territories, an AFP correspondent at the scene said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said the first convoy to reach Morek transported around 2,800 people.

They were to be transferred to other buses run by local NGOs, before travelling further north to temporary camps in rebel-held areas in Idlib and Aleppo provinces, the Britain-based monitor said.

"More than half of the evacuees are women and children," said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

"A second wave of departures is expected from Quneitra," he added.

The evacuations follow a deadly regime offensive on Quneitra, a thin, crescent-shaped province that lies along the buffer zone with the Israel-occupied Golan to the west.

The rebel surrender negotiated by Russia, a vital regime ally, also saw fighters hand over heavy and medium weapons and return government institutions to the area.

Syrian forces launched their southern offensive on June 19, targeting the province of Daraa before turning their attention to neighbouring Quneitra.

With a mix of military power and negotiated surrenders, President Bashar al-Assad's troops this month captured more than 90 percent of Daraa, where protests against him first erupted in 2011.

Regime forces backed by Russia have continued their campaign in Daraa, aiming to retake areas still controlled by the Islamic State group.

On Friday 11 children were among 26 civilians killed in air strikes which hit several towns in the area, the Observatory said, while raids continued on Saturday.

Syria's conflict has killed more than 350,000 people and displaced millions since it began in 2011 with a brutal government crackdown on protesters.

© 2018 AFP