More than three dozen Syrians held for years by al-Qaida-linked insurgents in the country's northwest were released on Tuesday as part of a deal to hand over areas around Damascus back to the government, state media reported.
The state-run Al-Ikhbariya TV broadcast images of the released, including women and children, arriving by bus at a government-controlled checkpoint, kissing and hugging Syrian soldiers. Many cried as they spoke to the soldiers. The captives had been held by the insurgents since 2015.
The 42 people freed on Tuesday are the first batch of more than 80 who are to be released. Along with their release, the deal will see al-Qaida-linked fighters from the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group evacuate from a Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus, while about 5,000 people in two northwestern villages besieged by insurgents will be allowed to move to government-held areas.
This is the latest in a series of evacuation deals for areas surrounding the capital, Damascus, that came under intense military offensive and crippling sieges. The United Nations and rights groups have criticized the deals, saying they amount to forced displacement.
But the latest deal does not restore full government control over the sprawling Yarmouk camp, where Islamic State militants control small pockets of the camp and a neighboring quarter and are continuing to clash with Syrian troops.
Another deal to evacuate three other suburbs south of Damascus is expected to take place in the coming days.
Al-Ikhbariya said nearly 20 wounded or ill from the two besieged villages were evacuated Tuesday. But the evacuation of more than 1,000 residents of the villages of Foua and Kfraya has apparently stalled amid security concerns. The residents reportedly are demanding they all leave at once instead of in batches for security reasons, according to the TV and a Facebook page that reports on Foua and Kfraya.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said five buses carrying around 200 insurgents from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham arrived at the handover area south of Aleppo after they left the Yarmouk camp.
The U.N. has warned of "catastrophic consequences" of the fighting affecting remaining inhabitants of Yarmouk. The camp was established in 1957 and has since turned into a densely populated area where nearly 150,000 registered Palestinian refugees lived before Syria's conflict in 2011. Since the early days of the war, rebel groups seized control of the camp, and the government has fought to restore control, laying a tight siege for years. The Islamic State militants entered the camp, located about 8 kilometers (5 miles) from the center of Damascus, in 2015, seizing parts of it.
"Yarmouk and its inhabitants have endured indescribable pain and suffering over years of conflict," Pierre Krähenbühl, the chief for the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency, said last week.
The latest fighting displaced around 5,000 civilians from Yarmouk into neighboring area of Yalda, the U.N. said. There are also an unconfirmed number of civilians stranded in Yarmouk.