Bombing of Syrian bus convoy kills dozens outside Aleppo

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BEIRUT, April 15 (Reuters) - A bomb blast hit a bus convoy waiting to cross into government-held Aleppo in Syria on Saturday, killing dozens of people evacuated from two Shi'ite villages the day before in a deal between warring sides.

The agreement had stalled, leaving thousands of people from both government-besieged and rebel-besieged areas stranded at two transit points on the city's outskirts, before the explosion occurred.

Late on Saturday buses began crossing into both government-held and rebel-held territory from the two transit points as the deal resumed, pro-Damascus media and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported.

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Dozens killed in Syrian bus bombing
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Dozens killed in Syrian bus bombing
ALEPPO, SYRIA - APRIL 15: A damaged bus is seen after bomb-laden vehicle attack held to a convoy, carrying Syrian civilians and opponent forces members those were evacuated from al-Fu'ah and Kefriya districts of Idlib, after they arrived in Rashideen neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on April 15, 2017. (Photo by Mahmud Faisal/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A picture taken on April 15, 2017, shows rebel fighters standing next to a damaged bus following a suicide car bombing in Rashidin, west of Aleppo, that targeted buses carrying Syrians evacuated from two besieged government-held towns of Fuaa and Kafraya. At least 40 people were killed in a suicide car bombing near buses carrying Syrians evacuated from two besieged government-held towns, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. / AFP PHOTO / Omar haj kadour (Photo credit should read OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on April 15, 2017, shows smoke billowing following a suicide car bombing in Rashidin, west of Aleppo, that targeted buses carrying Syrians evacuated from two besieged government-held towns of Fuaa and Kafraya. At least 40 people were killed in a suicide car bombing near buses carrying Syrians evacuated from two besieged government-held towns, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. / AFP PHOTO / Ibrahim YASOUF (Photo credit should read IBRAHIM YASOUF/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on April 15, 2017, shows smoke billowing following a suicide car bombing in Rashidin, west of Aleppo, that targeted buses carrying Syrians evacuated from two besieged government-held towns of Fuaa and Kafraya. At least 40 people were killed in a suicide car bombing near buses carrying Syrians evacuated from two besieged government-held towns, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. / AFP PHOTO / Ibrahim YASOUF (Photo credit should read IBRAHIM YASOUF/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrians, evacuated from two besieged government-held towns of Fuaa and Kafraya, flee into a field near the site of a suicide car bombing that targeted their buses in Rashidin, west of Aleppo, on April 15, 2017. At least 40 people were killed in a suicide car bombing near buses carrying Syrians evacuated from two besieged government-held towns, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. / AFP PHOTO / Omar haj kadour (Photo credit should read OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images)
A wounded Syrian, evacuated from two besieged government-held towns of Fuaa and Kafraya, is carried into a field near the site of a suicide car bombing that targeted their buses in Rashidin, west of Aleppo, on April 15, 2017. At least 40 people were killed in a suicide car bombing near buses carrying Syrians evacuated from two besieged government-held towns, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. / AFP PHOTO / Omar haj kadour (Photo credit should read OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrians, evacuated from two besieged government-held towns of Fuaa and Kafraya, flee into a field near the site of a suicide car bombing that targeted their buses in Rashidin, west of Aleppo, on April 15, 2017. At least 40 people were killed in a suicide car bombing near buses carrying Syrians evacuated from two besieged government-held towns, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. / AFP PHOTO / Omar haj kadour (Photo credit should read OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - APRIL 15: A damaged bus is seen after bomb-laden vehicle attack held to a convoy, carrying Syrian civilians and opponent forces members those were evacuated from al-Fu'ah and Kefriya districts of Idlib, after they arrived in Rashideen neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on April 15, 2017. (Photo by Mahmud Faisal/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - APRIL 15: A wreckage of a bus is seen after bomb-laden vehicle attack held to a convoy, carrying Syrian civilians and opponent forces members those were evacuated from al-Fu'ah and Kefriya districts of Idlib, after they arrived in Rashideen neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on April 15, 2017. (Photo by Aref Watad/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Syrian Red Crescent ambulances, carrying civilians wounded in a suicide car bombing that targeted buses in Rashidin, west of Aleppo, as they were being evacuated from two besieged government-held towns of Fuaa and Kafraya during an evacuation deal between the regime and rebels, drive towards hospitals in the government-held part of Aleppo on April 15, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / George OURFALIAN (Photo credit should read GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - APRIL 15 An internal view of a damaged bus is seen after bomb-laden vehicle attack held to a convoy, carrying Syrian civilians and opponent forces members those were evacuated from al-Fu'ah and Kefriya districts of Idlib, after they arrived in Rashideen neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on April 15, 2017. (Photo by Ibrahim Ebu Leys/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Syrian children, wounded in a suicide car bombing that targeted their buses in Rashidin, west of Aleppo, as they were being evacuated from two besieged government-held towns of Fuaa and Kafraya during an evacuation deal between the regime and rebels, receive treatment at a hospital in the government-held part of Aleppo on April 15, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / George OURFALIAN (Photo credit should read GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian child, wounded in a suicide car bombing that targeted their buses in Rashidin, west of Aleppo, as they were being evacuated from two besieged government-held towns of Fuaa and Kafraya during an evacuation deal between the regime and rebels, receives treatment at a hospital in the government-held part of Aleppo on April 15, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / George OURFALIAN (Photo credit should read GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian child, wounded in a suicide car bombing that targeted their buses in Rashidin, west of Aleppo, as they were being evacuated from two besieged government-held towns of Fuaa and Kafraya during an evacuation deal between the regime and rebels, receives treatment at a hospital in the government-held part of Aleppo on April 15, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / George OURFALIAN (Photo credit should read GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian children, wounded in a suicide car bombing that targeted their buses in Rashidin, west of Aleppo, as they were being evacuated from two besieged government-held towns of Fuaa and Kafraya during an evacuation deal between the regime and rebels, receive treatment at a hospital in the government-held part of Aleppo on April 15, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / George OURFALIAN (Photo credit should read GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian boy, wounded in a suicide car bombing that targeted their buses in Rashidin, west of Aleppo, as they were being evacuated from two besieged government-held towns of Fuaa and Kafraya during an evacuation deal between the regime and rebels, receives treatment at a hospital in the government-held part of Aleppo on April 15, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / George OURFALIAN (Photo credit should read GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian child, wounded in a suicide car bombing that targeted their buses in Rashidin, west of Aleppo, as they were being evacuated from two besieged government-held towns of Fuaa and Kafraya during an evacuation deal between the regime and rebels, receives treatment at a hospital in the government-held part of Aleppo on April 15, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / George OURFALIAN (Photo credit should read GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images)
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But the incident underscored the difficulty carrying out any agreement between warring sides in a volatile and complex Syrian conflict which, in its seventh year, shows no signs of easing.

A media unit run by Damascus ally Hezbollah said the attack was carried out by a suicide car bomb and killed at least 40 people. The Observatory said more than 24 were killed and scores more wounded.

Footage on state TV showed bodies lying next to charred buses with their windows blown out, and vehicles in flames.

The blast hit buses in the Rashidin area on Aleppo's outskirts. The vehicles had been waiting since Friday to cross from rebel-held territory into the government-controlled city itself. Ambulances later took the wounded to hospital in Aleppo.

The convoy was carrying residents and pro-government fighters from the Shi'ite villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, which are besieged by rebels in nearby Idlib province, an insurgent stronghold.

They had left under a deal where, in exchange, hundreds of Sunni insurgents and their families were granted safe passage from Madaya, a government-besieged town near Damascus.

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Syria gas attack
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Syria gas attack
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH A man carries the body of a dead child, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH People stand near a dead body, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
A man breathes through an oxygen mask as another one receives treatments, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
A man breathes through an oxygen mask, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH Men stand near dead bodies, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / A Syrian child receives treatment at a hospital in Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province, following an attack on April 4, 2017. A suspected chemical attack killed at least 58 civilians including several children in rebel-held northwestern Syria, a monitor said, with the opposition accusing the government and demanding a UN investigation. / AFP PHOTO / Omar haj kadour (Photo credit should read OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images)
A man holds an injured baby inside a Turkish ambulance as injured Syrian people enter into Turkey from the Cilvegozu border gate in Hatay province, near the Syrian border on April 4, 2017. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a phone call with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on April 4, 2017 condemned a suspected chemical attack in northwestern Syria as an 'inhuman' strike that could endanger peace talks based in the Kazakh capital. / AFP PHOTO / DOGAN NEWS AGENCY / - / Turkey OUT (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 4: A wounded kid receives medical treatment at sahra hospital after Assad Regime forces's attack with chlorine gas to Khan Shaykhun town of Idlib, Syria on April 4, 2017. (Photo by Abdulghani Arian/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 4: A woman gets treatment at a hospital after Assad Regime forces attacked with suspected chlorine gas to Khan Shaykhun town of Idlib, Syria on April 4, 2017. (Photo by Bahjat Najar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 4: A child gets treatment at a hospital after Assad Regime forces attacked with suspected chlorine gas to Khan Shaykhun town of Idlib, Syria on April 4, 2017. (Photo by Bahjat Najar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH A man carries the body of a dead child, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A crater is seen at the site of an airstrike, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Turkish officials with chemical clothes carry a injured man on April 4, 2017 in Hatay province, near the Syrian border. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a phone call with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on April 4, 2017 condemned a suspected chemical attack in northwestern Syria as an 'inhuman' strike that could endanger peace talks based in the Kazakh capital. / AFP PHOTO / DOGAN NEWS AGENCY / - / Turkey OUT (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / Bodies lie in the parking area of a hospital in Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province, following a suspected toxic gas attack on April 4, 2017. A suspected chemical attack killed at least 58 civilians including several children in rebel-held northwestern Syria, a monitor said, with the opposition accusing the government and demanding a UN investigation. / AFP PHOTO / Omar haj kadour (Photo credit should read OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 4: A child gets treatment at a hospital after Assad Regime forces attacked with suspected chlorine gas to Khan Shaykhun town of Idlib, Syria on April 4, 2017. (Photo by Bahjat Najar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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But a delay in the agreement had left all those evacuated stuck at transit points on Aleppo's outskirts since late on Friday.

Residents of al-Foua and Kefraya waited in the Rashidin area.

Rebels and residents of Madaya meanwhile waited at the government-held Ramousah bus garage, a few miles away. They were to be transported to Idlib.

People waiting in the Ramousah garage heard the blast, and said they feared revenge attacks by pro-government forces. They circulated a statement on social media imploring "international organizations" to intervene so the situation did not escalate.

The evacuation deal is one of several over recent months that has seen President Bashar al-Assad's government take back control of areas long besieged by his forces and their allies.

The deals are unpopular with the Syrian opposition, who say they amount to forced displacement of Assad's opponents from Syria's main urban centers in the west of the country.

They are also causing demographic changes because those who are displaced are usually Sunni Muslims, like most of the opposition. Assad is from the minority Alawite sect and is supported by Shi'ite regional allies.

It was unclear who carried out Saturday's bombing attack.

The exact reasons for the delay in completing the evacuation deal were also unclear.

'FORCED DISPLACEMENT'

The Observatory said the delay was caused by the fact that rebels from Zabadani, another town near Damascus included in the deal, had not yet been granted safe passage out.

A pro-opposition activist said insurgents blamed the delay partly on the fact that a smaller number of pro-government fighters had left the Shi'ite villages than was agreed.

Earlier on Saturday, 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.

"After Aleppo I'll see what the rest of the group is doing, if there are any preparations. My house, land and belongings are all in al-Foua," Mehdi Tahhan said.

A Madaya resident, speaking from the bus garage inside Aleppo, said people had been waiting there since late on Friday, and were not being allowed to leave.

"There's no drinking water or food. The bus garage is small so there's not much space to move around," Ahmed, 24, said.

"We're sad and angry about what has happened," he said. Many people felt that they had been forced to leave," he said.

"There was no other choice in the end - we were besieged inside a small area in Madaya."

Other evacuation deals in recent months have included areas of Aleppo and a district in the city of Homs.

Syria's population is mostly Sunni. Assad's Alawite religious minority is often considered an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

He has been backed militarily by Russia, and by Shi'ite fighters from Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah group in Syria's six-year-old conflict.

Assad has the military advantage over rebels in the west thanks to Russia's intervention in 2015, although the insurgents are still fighting back and have made gains in some areas. (Additional reporting by Kinda Makieh in Damascus; Editing by Andrew Bolton and Gareth Jones)

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