March 21, 2018 / 12:00 AM / in a month

Syrian rebels agree to evacuate town in Ghouta: sources

AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian rebels will evacuate a besieged town in eastern Ghouta, opposition sources and officials and a military media unit run by the government’s ally Hezbollah said on Wednesday, the first such deal in the last rebel bastion near the capital.

People, who were evacuated from the two rebel-besieged Shi'ite villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, stand near buses at insurgent-held al-Rashideen, Aleppo province, Syria April 19, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

Fighters from Ahrar al-Sham, which holds Harasta, agreed to lay down arms in return for safe passage to opposition-held northwestern Syria and a government pardon for people who wished to stay, the opposition sources said.

Some 1,500 militants and 6,000 of their family members will be transported to rebel-held Idlib province in two batches starting on Thursday, the Hezbollah military media unit said.

Russia’s Defence Ministry, which the opposition sources said had brokered the deal, said on Wednesday it had opened a new “humanitarian corridor” near Harasta but did not indicate whether this would be part of any rebel pullout deal.

The Syrian army has recaptured 70 percent of the territory that was under insurgent control in eastern Ghouta, and after weeks of bombardment residents are fleeing by the thousands.

Beside Harasta, the rebels still hold two other pockets in the enclave outside Damascus - the major town of Douma and an area to the south that includes the towns of Jobar, Ein Terma and Arbin.

The army assault, backed by Russian fighter jets, began last month. It has killed more than 1,500 people as air strikes pound residential areas where thousands had sheltered in basements across the densely populated enclave, according to a monitor.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is determined to end what he calls a terrorist threat near his seat of power. The government accuses rebels of bombarding the capital’s suburbs as revenge for the assault on Ghouta, though the insurgents deny targeting civilians.

On Tuesday, a rocket struck a busy market in a government-held area close to eastern Ghouta, killing at least 35 people, state media said. Syria’s Foreign Ministry on Wednesday said Saudi Arabia and Qatar were behind the rebel groups responsible. Both countries have backed rebel groups during the war.

The Syrian army and its allies have for years employed siege and bombardment tactics to force rebels to surrender, helping Assad recover Aleppo, Homs and other areas.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday condemned the assault on Ghouta and accused Assad’s ally Russia of “just watching” the events unfold.

People, who were evacuated from the two rebel-besieged Shi'ite villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, stand near buses at insurgent-held al-Rashideen, Aleppo province, Syria April 19, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

EVACUATION OF WOUNDED

The Harasta evacuation will begin with injured civilians, said one official familiar with talks.

A pro-Assad commander confirmed there was a deal between the Russians and Ahrar al-Sham. Other civilians and fighters would be evacuated to rebel-held Idlib in northwest Syria in coming days, the commander said.

A local official in the opposition-run Harasta council was quoted by opposition news outlets as saying a deal had been reached but did not say when it would be implemented.

More than 100 civilians were killed in the last two days of air strikes in eastern Ghouta with most of the raids on Douma city, the largest population center where more than 150,000 people still live.

Rebels and residents say napalm and incendiary weapons, which Damascus and Moscow deny using, were dropped on several civilian areas to force rebels to surrender.

Securing Harasta, near the closed Damascus-Homs highway, will allow the army to make further gains in the remaining parts of the enclave in rebel hands.

“They bomb us to force us to leave our homes and everything behind us and say imminent death faces those who stay,” Iyad Abdul Aziz, head of the local council in Douma, told Reuters.

He said an air strike on Sunday hit a warehouse that stocked aid delivered earlier this month, worsening the plight of civilians, and that Douma faced “catastrophic conditions”.

The Harasta deal may add pressure on the two main rebel groups - Failaq al-Rahman in the southern pocket and Jaish al-Islam in Douma - to also reach understandings.

They have so far refused to leave the enclave, but the most likely outcome was still their transfer to opposition-held areas in northern and southern Syria, a rebel official said.

Idlib, in northwestern Syria, is subject to government air raids. On Wednesday, one strike killed 20 people there including 16 children, the war monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said.

Defeat in eastern Ghouta would mark the worst setback for the anti-Assad rebellion since the opposition was driven from eastern Aleppo in late 2016 after a similar campaign of siege, bombing, ground assault and the promise of safe passage out.

Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi Additional reporting by Maria Kiselyova in Moscow and Laila Bassam in Beirut; Editing by Janet Lawrence and John Stonestreet

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