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Syria, Rebels Reach New Evacuation Deal for Besieged Cities

FILE - A rebel fighter stands with his weapon near evacuees from the Shi'ite Muslim villages of al-Foua and Kefraya as they ride buses in insurgent-held al-Rashideen, Syria, Dec. 20, 2016.

The Syrian government and rebels opposing President Bashar al-Assad have reached an agreement to evacuate civilians from towns besieged by fighters from both sides.

For several years, rebels have besieged the northwestern towns of Foua and Kefraya, while pro-government forces laid siege to Zabadani and Madaya near Damascus.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the six-year conflict in Syria, said the evacuations are due to begin April 4. The agreement also put in place a cease-fire in the towns. The Observatory said those areas were calm Wednesday.

The four towns have been the subject of previous deals to allow people to leave and to allow in deliveries of humanitarian aid. The United Nations and aid groups have complained at times of a lack of access to the towns despite the agreements.

The U.N. has also repeatedly called on all forces in Syria to stop the using sieges as a tactic in their fight.

Syria's conflict began in March 2011 as peaceful protests against Assad before spiraling into a complicated civil war that now includes pro-government forces, various rebel groups, Islamic State fighters, airstrikes by Russia and a U.S.-led coalition, and Turkish forces operating in northern Syria.

The U.N. says 13.5 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance and about 5 million refugees have fled the country.