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Syrian rebels hand in heavy weapons in besieged Damascus town

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian rebels handed in their heavy weapons in a town southwest of Damascus, on Sunday, as part of a deal they have made with the government to get safe passage to insurgent-controlled areas, state-affiliated media said.

A boy inspects a damaged house in the rebel-held besieged city of Douma, a suburb of Damascus, Syria February 27, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

Through a series of so-called “settlement” agreements and army offensives, the Syrian government, backed by Russian air power and Iranian-backed militias, has been steadily suppressing armed opposition to its rule in the capital city’s suburbs.

Rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad and his government say the deals are part of a strategy to forcibly displace whole populations from opposition-held areas after years of siege and bombardment.

The United Nations estimates 12,000 people have been besieged in Khan al-Shih, where a Palestinian refugee camp is located, in the Damascus suburbs for years. The last month has seen heavy clashes and air strikes there, ending this week with the evacuation deal.

Khan al-Shih is the only town not controlled by the government on a major supply route from Damascus to government-held territory in the southern province of Quneitra.

The army will start the transfer of insurgents and their families from the town to rebel-held Idlib province on Monday, according to a statement from a military news service run by the Lebanese group Hezbollah, an ally of Assad.

Syrian state-run Ikhbariya TV, broadcasting from near Khan al-Shih on Sunday, said 1,270 people will be moved to Idlib in the coming week and the remaining 3,000-4,500 people will be taken back into government-controlled areas, citing sources within the local administration.

A month ago, the Syrian army and its allies cut supply lines between Khan al-Shih and the town of Zakiya to its south which is largely peaceful due to a previous deal with the government.

Ikhbariya said seven other villages west of Damascus had agreed to settlement and evacuation deals in the past 24 hours.

Syria’s Minister of National Reconciliation Affairs, Ali Haidar, whose department administers the agreements, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Reporting by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Louise Ireland