BEIRUT — Syria's government and rebels have exchanged more than 30 prisoners and nine bodies, part of a larger agreement to evacuate thousands of residents from four besieged areas in different parts of the country, activists and officials said Wednesday.
The exchange came ahead of the planned evacuation of more than 10,000 residents from two pro-government Shiite villages in northern Syria, Foua and Kfarya, and the rebel-held towns of Madaya and Zabadani near Damascus.
Critics say the transfer amounts to forced displacement. The four besieged areas have been linked through a series of agreements between government forces and rebels that the U.N. says have hindered aid access.
Hakim Baghdadi, a member of the relief committee for Foua and Kfarya, said the overnight release was overseen by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. He said gunfire erupted during the exchange, causing a pause in the process. He provided no further details. The Red Crescent had no immediate comment.
The military-run media said rebels released eight women, four children and eight bodies. Syrian TV later said 20 were released, including four children. Pro-government militias freed 19 gunmen and released one body.
Syrian al-Ikhbariya TV showed newly released women from Foua and Kfarya, sitting in a room as the TV broadcaster wished them well. A couple of children appeared in the footage drinking juice.
Videos released by rebel groups showed Red Crescent vans arriving in the rebel-held northern Idlib province overnight to chants of "God is Greatest." Men, some in military fatigues, embraced the released prisoners.
In a video released by Ahrar al-Sham, an ultra-Conservative rebel group, a former prisoner complained of maltreatment. As he finished speaking, a fighter handed him a loaf of bread.
A video from the military media showed the men before they were released as they sat on the floor, next to a pot of a boiling soup. A Facebook page that reports news from Foua and Kfarya showed the coffin of a Lebanese fighter who fought on the side the Syrian government, and whose body was released in the exchange.
Nearly 200 buses are to carry out the evacuation, according to the military media and Baghdadi. Abdul-Wahab Ahmad, a media activist from the rebel-held town of Madaya, said the first batch of 20 buses arrived and people are preparing to leave.
The U.N. says hundreds of thousands of Syrians face severe shortages in areas besieged by government forces or Islamic militants. U.N. officials say the sieges amount to a violation of international law, and that evacuation agreements must be voluntary.
Images of malnourished children from Madaya, 26 kilometres (16 miles) from the capital, caused an outcry last year but the siege has continued.
Muhammad Darwish, who was unable to complete a dentistry degree after the war broke out, has been serving as a field medic in Madaya. He plans to leave the town with his clothes and school papers.
"We have mixed feelings," he said. "Joy and sadness. We've been fighting for six years, and now we have to leave."
Civilians are being given the option to stay, but he said it's too dangerous for medical workers to do so. Since the beginning of the conflict, the government has targeted medical workers with detention, torture, and bombardment.
"It's more dangerous for a doctor than it is for a fighter to stay," Darwish said.
Ahmad, the activist, will also leave because of security concerns, as will Wafiqa Hashem, a teacher in Madaya.
"Maybe it's demographic engineering, but it's better than a collective massacre," she said.
Some 2,000 people from Madaya and Zabadani have registered with the authorities to take green buses to the northern rebel-held Idlib province, according to residents.
Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus and Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed to this report.
Philip Issa, The Associated Press