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Jaish al-Islam to leave Douma in return for releasing prisoners

MOSCOW/BEIRUT (Reuters) - An agreement has been reached to release all prisoners held by Syrian rebels controlling the eastern Ghouta city of Douma in return for the fighters’ leaving the city, Syrian state television reported on Sunday, citing an official source.

According to the agreement, Jaish al-Islam fighters will leave Douma for the northern city of Jarablus, near the borders with Turkey, within 48 hours, the source added.

There was no immediate comment from Jaish al-Islam, which control the city.

The rebel group has more than 3,500 prisoners and hostages in its prisons in Douma, Rami Abdulrahman, the director of the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, told Reuters. Five prisoners were released on Wednesday, after earlier departures by Jaish al-Islam fighters.

Russian news agency RIA, citing a security source, said Jaish al-Islam rebels will leave Douma in two batches in the coming hours.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has regained control of nearly all of eastern Ghouta in a Russian-backed military campaign that began in February, leaving just Douma in rebel hands. Tens of thousands of people are estimated to be sheltering in the battered city.

After a lull of a few days, government forces began bombarding Douma again on Friday.

On Saturday evening, Jaish al-Islam accused the Syrian government of carrying out a chemical attack on Douma that a medical relief organization and rescue workers say killed dozens of people. The government has denied carrying out any such attack.

The offensive in Ghouta has been one of the deadliest of the seven-year-long war, killing more than 1,600 civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The conquest of Douma would further strengthen Assad’s political and ground position, as it recaptures the biggest rebel enclave near Damascus.

The rebel groups controlling the eastern Ghouta area had shelled the capital’s neighborhoods almost daily in the past few months, inflicting casualties and damages.

Reporting by Dahlia Nehme in Beirut and Polina Ivanova in Moscow; Editing by Tom Perry, Larry King