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Syrians in rebel Damascus suburb start to evacuate in deal

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Hundreds of civilians in the Damascus suburb of Mouadamiya began to leave the rebel-held area on Friday in what the government described as an amnesty, part of its efforts to force insurgent pockets around big cities to surrender.

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The move took place a week after the surrender of neighbouring besieged Daraya, one of the longest-standing bastions of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad and only a few kilometres (miles) southwest of the Syrian capital.

The United Nations and aid organisations have criticised the evacuation of Daraya and other besieged areas, which were not agreed under its supervision, as setting an alarming precedent for the forced resettlement of civilians after an army siege.

Syrian state television showed footage of families heaving luggage through the streets and buses arriving to take them from the district. They will be transported to a temporary housing area in Harjaleh near Damascus, it reported.

The 303 people leaving on Friday are civilians who had already been displaced from Daraya, said Mohammed Naim Rajab, a local official in Mouadamiya. The remaining Daraya refugees will depart during the next week or 10 days, he added.

Rajab said that an agreement between the government and the rebels in Mouadamiya would be implemented after that. He gave no further details.

After the surrender of Daraya a week ago, some of its thousands of residents moved to the Harjaleh housing facility, while those who wished to remain in rebel-held areas, along with fighters, were taken by bus to rebel-held northwestern Syria.

Conditions in Mouadamiya had been less harsh than in Daraya since it agreed on a limited local truce with the government in late 2013, allowing aid to enter the suburb in return for a halt to combat.

Syrian National Reconciliation Minister Ali Haidar was quoted on state television this week as saying such pockets of rebel territory could no longer be permitted to exist.

“Daraya is a domino and after that others will fall,” he said, adding that such areas could not “remain isolated cantons that pose a threat to the state”.

Rebels still hold a large swathe of Eastern Ghouta, the district of farms and towns that stretches northeast from the capital and has been a stronghold of the opposition since Syria’s uprising began in 2011.

The civil war has killed more than 250,000 people, displaced 11 million - about half of Syria’s pre-conflict population, caused a refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe, drawn in regional and global powers and contributed to rising Islamist militant attacks across the world.

Reporting by Firas Makdesi in Damascus and Angus McDowall in Beirut; Editing by Mark Heinrich