Syrian rebels in eastern Ghouta agree to evacuate imprisoned Nusra fighters

BEIRUT (Reuters) - The Syrian rebel group Jaish al-Islam said on Friday it had agreed to evacuate Nusra Front fighters being held in its prisons in besieged eastern Ghouta to rebel-held Idlib province.

Syrian state television then showed footage it said was of 13 fighters and their families beginning to leave the besieged enclave on the outskirts of Damascus.

In a statement on Twitter on Friday, Jaish al-Islam, one of the main factions in eastern Ghouta, said the decision had been made in consultation with the United Nations, a number of international parties and civil society representatives from eastern Ghouta.

“After our meeting today with the delegation which entered Ghouta accompanying the aid convoy, an agreement was reached to evacuate the first batch of (Nusra Front) members present in the prisons of Jaish al-Islam who had been detained during security operation that Jaish al-Islam began on 28 April, 2017,” read the statement from the group’s leadership, dated Friday.

Mohammad Alloush, the political chief of Jaish al-Islam, told pan-Arab television channel al-Arabiya al-Hadath on Friday that the number of Nusra fighters in eastern Ghouta does not exceed “a few hundred”.

Ghouta has been besieged for years, but in the last two weeks, the Syrian army has retaken nearly all the farmland in eastern Ghouta under cover of near-ceaseless shelling and air strikes, leaving only a dense sprawl of towns - about half the territory - still under insurgent control.

On Friday, an emergency aid convoy crossed front lines into eastern Ghouta and delivered its supplies.

It was not clear if the deal to evacuate members of Tahrir al-Sham, an alliance of jihadist factions linked to the Nusra Front, formerly the Syrian branch of al Qaeda, would lead to a wider evacuation of fighters from other groups or civilians.

In many other cases across Syria, rebels have surrendered terrain in return for safe passage to other opposition areas for themselves as well as relatives and other civilians loath to fall back under Assad’s rule.

(This version of the story was refiled to fix typo in penultimate paragraph)

Reporting by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Robin Pomeroy