Second group of Failaq al-Rahman rebels leave Syria's Ghouta

BEIRUT (Reuters) - More than 5,000 Syrian rebel fighters and their families boarded 77 buses on Sunday to wait to be taken from eastern Ghouta, Syrian state media said, in the second day of an evacuation from their former stronghold near the capital Damascus.

Syrian rebels and civilians look through a bus window as they leave Harasta in eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria March 23, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

The main rebel group in the Arbeen pocket of eastern Ghouta, Failaq al-Rahman, reached a deal on Friday under which fighters agreed to surrender the enclave to the government and be transported to an opposition-held area in northwest Syria.

Around 1,000 fighters and their relatives left on Saturday, Syrian state news agency SANA said.

After a month-long ground and air offensive and evacuation deals with Failaq al-Rahman and another rebel group, Ahrar al-Sham, pro-Syrian government forces control most of what had been a major rebel stronghold, just 15 km (9 miles) east of Damascus.

Before the recent offensive, the suburb had an estimated population of 400,000. It had been under siege by government forces since 2013 and only the town of Douma, the most populous part of eastern Ghouta, remains under rebel control.

There have been negotiations but no deal yet between government forces and the main faction controlling Douma, Jaish al-Islam, which has said it wants to stay.

Tens of thousands of civilians have streamed out of Douma on foot during lulls in the bombardment of the past week. Hundreds more civilians left the area on Sunday, carrying children and hauling their belongings.

Russian news agency RIA, citing the Russian defense ministry, said more than 108,000 civilians in total had left eastern Ghouta since it said a month ago that it would oversee daily humanitarian pauses in the fighting.

Moscow and Damascus say the Ghouta campaign is necessary to halt deadly rebel shelling of the capital.

A military source told Reuters evacuation of Failaq al-Rahman fighters, who are coming from Zamalka, Jobar, Ein Terma and Arbeen towns, will take a couple of days to complete. They began boarding the buses on Sunday morning, but have not yet set off.

State TV showed lines of green buses waiting. A young child could be seen dangling a bandaged hand out of a bus window. Some men covered their faces with scarves as they sat waiting.

A number of fighters and family members who were transported last week from Harasta and Arbeen have arrived in rebel-held territory to the north, where many are receiving medical care, the opposition-run Hama health directorate said in a statement.

Reporting by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Daniel Wallis