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Islamist rebels react in a bus after they were released from government prisons, as they arrive to El Eis area in southern Aleppo, Syria July 19, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - Two pro-government villages in northwestern Syria were evacuated on Thursday, state television reported, in an agreement between the Damascus government and insurgents who had laid siege to them for several years.

In exchange, the government was due to release hundreds of prisoners from its jails. Pro-Damascus TV stations said at least 20 buses carrying "militants" released from jail had crossed into rebel-held territory under the agreement.

Close to 7,000 people - civilians and fighters - were due to leave the loyalist Shi'ite villages of al-Foua and Kefraya in Idlib province. They were being ferried out in a convoy of buses through rebel-held territory to nearby government-held territory in Aleppo province, state TV footage showed.

Footage broadcast by al-Manar TV, which is run by the pro-Damascus Shi'ite group Hezbollah, showed the buses arriving at a government checkpoint in al-Eis, east of the two villages. Many had smashed windscreens - Al-Manar's reporter said they had been pelted with rocks as they drove through rebel areas.

A separate convoy of buses was then shown crossing from al-Eis into the rebel-held territory. Al-Manar's reporter at the scene said they were carrying detainees released under the deal.

Population transfers have been a common feature of the seven-year war, but have mostly come at the expense of Assad's opponents. Rebels and civilians have been bussed out of their hometowns to insurgent territory in the north as government troops advanced, backed by Russian and Iranian forces.

The opposition has decried it as a systematic policy of forcible displacement, or "demographic change", aimed at getting rid of Assad's opponents.

Assad has vowed to recover the entire country, and Idlib province is the last major insurgent-held part of Syria. The Syrian army and its allies are currently waging a rapidly advancing campaign against rebels in the southwest.

Turkey, which has supported the anti-Assad opposition, has set up military observation posts in the northwest as part of an agreement with Assad's Russian and Iranian allies.

The conflict has taken on a sectarian dimension as it swelled out of protests against Assad's rule in 2011.

Shi'ite militias backed by Iran have deployed from across the region to help Damascus against the rebels, many of whom identified themselves as Sunni Islamists. Assad comes from the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

The conflict has killed an estimated half a million people and driven some 11 million from their homes.

EVACUATION COMMENCES

More than 120 buses arrived at the Shi'ite villages on Wednesday to take out the residents and fighters. Ambulances left first, ferrying out the sick to a government checkpoint. State-run al-Ikhbariya TV said 10 ambulances carrying a number of people in critical condition left the villages.

Opposition sources said officials from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a coalition spearheaded by Syria's former al-Qaeda offshoot, and Iran's Revolutionary Guards had negotiated the latest swap.

A commander in the regional alliance that backs Assad and an Islamist rebel source familiar with the secret talks said separately that Turkey was also involved in the process, which builds on a deal from last year that was not fully implemented.

The evacuees were due to include Alawites taken hostage by rebels when they overran Idlib more than three years ago, the commander said.

In April last year, thousands of people were shuttled out of the two villages to government territory in a similar mediated agreement.

In exchange, hundreds of residents left two towns at the border with Lebanon, Madaya and Zabadani, which were in the hands of Sunni rebels at the time and under siege from pro-government forces. They were moved to Idlib.

But other parts of the deal - evacuating the people remaining in al-Foua and Kefraya and releasing 1,500 detainees from state prisons - did not go through at the time.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis, Laila Bassam in Beirut, Lisa Barrington in Beirut, Kinda Makieh in Damascus and Hesham Hajali in Cairo; writing by Tom Perry; editing by Larry King)

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Reuters