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Rebel fighters to leave Syria's Douma after weeks-long military campaign

MOSCOW/BEIRUT/AMMAN (Reuters) - Rebel fighters will leave the besieged city of Douma for a rebel-held area of northern Syria under a deal with the Russian army that Russian military police will help to enforce, opposition negotiators said.

Under the agreement, Jaish al-Islam fighters will evacuate Douma and move to the northern city of Jarablus, near the border with Turkey, within 48 hours, state media quoted an official source as saying.

Jaish al-Islam, one of the most prominent insurgent groups in the war, is bowing to the Syrian government’s demand to pull out of Douma, in the eastern Ghouta region near Damascus, after the city was devastated by a seven-week government offensive.

The agreement comes after medical aid groups reported that dozens of people were killed by poison gas in Douma on Saturday in an attack the rebels say was carried out by Damascus. The government has denied carrying out any such attack.

Russian news agency RIA, citing a security source, said Jaish al-Islam rebels will leave Douma in two batches in the coming hours.

The agreement will be enforced by Russian military police, who will enter the city, the opposition negotiators said.

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Commercial crossing points into the besieged city are to be opened under Russian military police supervision, they said.

Russian military police have played a similar role in some Syrian towns and villages but this would be first such deal in a city the size of Douma.

Opposition negotiators said the deal would allow those fighters from Jaish al-Islam who do not wish to leave to make peace with the Syrian authorities without being pursued by the security forces.

The deal includes a six-month reprieve for those wanted for military conscription, negotiators told Reuters.

The government said under the deal rebels will release an undisclosed number of prisoners and hostages in their prisons.

Five prisoners were released on Wednesday, after earlier departures by hundreds of sick and wounded fighters from Jaish al-Islam and their families.

State media showed hundreds of families of detainees at a crossing point near Douma waiting for the start of the release of the hostages and prisoners. A Reuters witness said they saw ambulances and celebratory firing of guns.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has regained control of nearly all of eastern Ghouta in a Russian-backed military campaign that began in February, leaving just Douma in rebel hands. Tens of thousands of people are estimated to be sheltering in the battered city.

The offensive in Ghouta has been one of the deadliest of the seven-year-long war, killing more than 1,600 civilians, according to rescuers and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Taking Douma would further strengthen Assad’s position as it is the biggest rebel enclave near Damascus.

Reporting by Dahlia Nehme in Beirut,Polina Ivanova in Moscow, Suleiman al Khalidi in Amman and Kinda Makieh in Damascus; Editing by Tom Perry, Larry King and Adrian Croft