AMMAN (Reuters) - Rebels and Syria’s army agreed a deal on Thursday to evacuate all residents and insurgents from the besieged Damascus suburb of Daraya, a rebel leader and state media said, ending one of the longest stand-offs in the five-year conflict.
Syria’s army has surrounded rebels and civilians and blocked food deliveries in Daraya since 2012, regularly bombing the area just 7 km (4 miles) from President Bashar al Assad’s seat of power.
It was one of the first places to see peaceful protests against Assad’s rule, and fought off repeated attempts to retake it by government forces as the conflict escalated into civil war. It was also the scene of one of the worst atrocities of the war.
“We reached agreement on the evacuation of all of the people of Daraya civilians and fighters,” said Captain Abu Jamal, the head of the Liwa Shuda al Islam, the biggest of two main rebel groups inside Daraya whose fighters are drawn from its residents.
The evacuation, which is similar to deals concluded in several besieged areas in the course of the conflict, could start on Friday and last for two or three days, he added.
In the past weeks, the army has escalated its bombardment of the rebel-held bastion, intensifying the use of barrel and incendiary bombs. Last week its only hospital was hit, rebels and aid workers said.
“It’s difficult to describe my feelings, we kept holding on for four years to the last breath. The city was destroyed over our heads and we are now not leaving a city but a pile of rubble,” said Hamam al Sukri, a resident who had been living in a basement with his six-member family.
In 2012, several hundred people were killed in Daraya, including civilians, many execution style, after security forces stormed the suburb after locals took up arms. Both the army and rebels blamed the other.
Rebels and local council sources said around 5,000 people would be evacuated from the suburb that, before the war, was home to a quarter of a million people.
This would include around 1,000 fighters who would be evacuated with their light weapons to rebel-held areas in northern Syria. The army would reassert its control over the city and seize heavy weapons, state media said.
Abu Jamal said the deal was reached after a ceasefire on Wednesday was followed by talks that led to the authorities agreeing to rebel terms for an evacuation.
“We got the freedom of getting civilians to leave freely to liberated areas or wherever they want. Otherwise it would have been a final surrender with the regime taking us as prisoners of war and sending civilians to an unknown fate,” Abu Jamal said.
The plight of civilians in Daraya and other besieged areas, has long been of concern to the United Nations, which has condemned the use of starvation by both sides in the Syrian conflict as a weapon of war.
Authorities agreed in June to allow U.N. supplied food deliveries into the suburb under a cessation of hostilities deal, but just one shipment has made it since then.
Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Andrew Heavens