DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Fighters in the Damascus suburb of Daraya began to leave with their families and other residents under an evacuation deal on Friday, effectively surrendering the town to the government after a grueling four-year siege.
A Reuters witness saw six buses leaving the town. Footage on state television showed buses driving past a large group of soldiers through streets lined with rubble.
Peeping from the window of one of the vehicles was a small child no older than four or five, too young to remember life before the siege.
Only one shipment of aid has reached the area since the Syrian army surrounded the town in 2012, the U.N. says.
Syrian state television reported that all the buses that left on Friday had arrived at a housing center in Herjalleh, a suburb west of Damascus.
A Syrian Army general told reporters in Daraya that about 300 families of fighters would leave the town on Friday, and in total about 700 fighters and 4,000 civilians would be evacuated by Saturday. Fighters who did not want to make peace with the Syrian government would be transferred to Idlib, he said.
Two Free Syria Army rebel groups from Daraya, the Shuhada al-Islam and Ajnad al-Sham, would travel to Idlib, a rebel stronghold in northwest Syria, on Saturday, rebel factions in the south said in an emailed statement.
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 as a weapon by both sides.
But the United Nations was not consulted on Daraya’s evacuation plan and U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura and U.N. humanitarian coordinator Stephen O’Brien, voiced deep concern about it on Friday.
They said civilians should be evacuated only if their safety could be guaranteed and it was on a voluntary basis.
There have been previous deals outside U.N. control to allow similar evacuations of besieged fighters and civilians, or to let people return to their homes after ceasefires were agreed.
In February, about 4,000 people returned to their south Damascus neighborhood under a local ceasefire deal.
Conditions were so bad in Daraya that, amid reports of the army burning local wheat fields, some people were reduced to eating grass and sending their children out to beg, the U.N.’s World Food Program said.
Daraya, just 7 km (4 miles) from central Damascus, and flanking an important military airbase, was one of the first places to see peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad before the five-year-old civil war began.
Fighters in the suburb fought off repeated attempts to retake it by government forces as the conflict escalated. It was also the scene of one of the worst atrocities of the war.
In 2012, several hundred people were killed, including civilians, many execution style, when security forces stormed the suburb after locals took up arms. Both the army and rebels blamed each other.
In recent weeks, the army has escalated its use of barrel and incendiary bombs there. Last week its only hospital was hit, rebels and aid workers said.
Syria’s government denies deploying barrel bombs, but their use has been widely confirmed by outside monitors, including the United Nations, whose Security Council condemned the dropping of incendiary devices last year.
Daraya’s local council said in an online statement that civilians will be initially taken to the town of Herjalleh in the Western Ghouta suburbs of Damascus and “will move later to places they choose”.
Herjalleh is the site of a government housing project for displaced people. About 11 million people have been forced to leave their homes and about 250,000 people have been killed since the war started in 2011.
Reporting by Firas Makdesi and Kinda Makieh in Damascus; Additional reporting by Lisa Barrington and Angus McDowall in Beirut; Editing by Louise Ireland