Over 100 killed during Syria's troubled population transfer

"Everyone is tense here; we feel like the attacks could start at any time", said one man, asking that his name be withheld to protect the security of family members still in Madaya.

Thousands of people have been stuck in dozens of buses in two separate convoys on the edge of Aleppo city for more than 30 hours.

State TV al-Ikhbariya said the attack was the result of a vehicle bomb carrying food aid to be delivered to the evacuees in the rebel-held area - ostensibly crisps for the children - and accused rebel groups of carrying it out. More than 20,000 people were bused out of Aleppo at the end of past year, to rebel-held provinces in the northwest.

A war monitor has put the death toll at 24 in the area controlled by opposition fighters.

Video shown on Syrian state-run television showed heavily damaged and burned buses parked on the side of a road. Earlier on April 15, at the transit point where the buses from al-Foua and Kefraya were waiting, one resident said he was not yet sure where he would live.

Syrian state TV blamed the rebels for obstructing the deal, causing thousands of evacuees to be stuck in bus depots overnight.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the attack in Rashidin, west of Aleppo, targeted residents evacuated from the northern towns of Fuaa and Kafraya under a deal reached between the regime and rebels. "We left so that God willing (the siege) may ease on those who remain", said Ahmad Afandar, a 19-year-old evacuee from Madaya whose parents stayed behind.

A resident of Zabadani - another rebel-held town to be evacuated - Amer Burhan says no evacuation had even taken place from there. Under the agreement, 5,000 people were set to receive safe transfer from government-held towns that are surrounded by rebels and 2,000 left rebel-held towns that are surrounded by government forces.

Some have criticised the deal as forced displacement, while others fear they are being gathered for a final government offensive to defeat them. "We're sad and angry about what has happened", he said.

When Friday's evacuations are completed, they will be the first in number of rounds stretching over two months to evacuate some 30,000 Syrians from besieged areas.

Opposition forces and residents of Madaya near Damascus were waiting at the government-held Ramousah bus garage, a few miles away.

"They of course wanted to beat the Sunni rebels into submission", said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Assad's Alawite religious minority is often considered an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam. Most of the towns' combined population of 26,000 will leave or have already left for Aleppo, Syria's largest city and a government stronghold.

  • Leroy Wright