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Two new rebel evacuation deals near Damascus: monitor

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Two deals to evacuate rebels and their weapons from parts of the Damascus suburbs have been reached, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Saturday, as government attacks on the remaining opposition-held areas around the capital intensify.

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

The evacuation deals are part of the Syrian government’s attempts to conclude local agreements with rebels in besieged areas that have resulted in rebels being given safe passage to insurgent-controlled areas.

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

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said an agreement to start evacuating rebels and their weapons from rebel-held Khan al-Shih will start to be implemented from Saturday.

Khan al-Shih is a Palestinian refugee camp southwest of Damascus, where the United Nations estimates 12,000 people are besieged by the Syrian government.

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

The town has seen a month of heavy clashes and air strikes which ended this week with a ceasefire and the evacuation agreement, the Observatory said.

Northwest of Damascus, another agreement has been reached to evacuate rebels from the town of al-Tal, the Observatory said. Under the deal the Syrian government will not enter al-Tal as long as the area is free is weaponry.

The deal, which followed days of clashes and air strikes with rebels inside al-Tal, is expected to be implemented in the next few days.

Through a series of so-called ‘settlement’ deals and army offensives, the Syrian government, backed by Russian air power and Iranian-backed militias, has been steadily suppressing armed opposition to its rule around the capital city.

Besieged since 2013, the biggest rebel stronghold near Damascus, eastern Ghouta, has shrunk in size in recent months as government forces have advanced.

Since last week, eastern Ghouta has been pounded with air strikes and shelling in what a witness described as the worst attacks seen for at least a year.

Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said on Friday the increased intensity on attacks in eastern Ghouta since Nov. 17 were “leading to significant increases in mass casualty influxes”.

On Nov. 15 Syrian and Russian war planes resumed a fierce campaign of air attacks and bombardment on the insurgent-held eastern part of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. Around 270,000 people are through to be besieged in dire conditions in east Aleppo.

Reporting by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Alexander Smith