HUNDREDS of Syrian opposition supporters and their families boarded buses to leave Damascus yesterday as part of an evacuation deal with President Bashar al-Assad’s government. They were bound for opposition-held areas in the country’s north in the latest in a series of population transfers in the war-torn country over the past year.

The evacuation of some 1500 people from the north-eastern Barzeh neighbourhood in the capital is the first in that area. It is also the first since Russia, Turkey, and Iran agreed on Friday to enforce a ceasefire between government and opposition forces in four areas.

Barzeh came under siege last month, after government forces captured a major road near the area separating it from opposition-held eastern suburbs of Damascus.

Over the past months, tens of thousands of people living in besieged areas around Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo have surrendered after prolonged sieges in exchange for safe relocation to opposition-held areas elsewhere in the country.

Mazen al-Shami, an opposition activist based near Damascus, said the opposition fighters and their families boarding the buses in Barzeh were heading to the rebel-held north-western province of Idlib. He posted a photo online showing fighters with their automatic rifles standing near buses.

The government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media said some 500 fighters will head to Idlib, while dozens of other Barzeh residents plan to stay, apparently benefiting from an amnesty offered to opposition fighters who decided to return to normal civilian lives.

Syrian state TV said some 60 buses and ambulances of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent were in Barzeh for the evacuations.

Some opposition activists have criticised the population movements as “forced displacement”. Last month, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that the forced movement of civilians could constitute a war crime.

He said the UN has repeatedly expressed concern at local evacuation agreements that follow the decimation of an area and result in the forced displacement of civilians.