Hundreds of rebels leave Syrian town of Mouadamiya: witnesses

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Hundreds of insurgents and their families left the besieged Syrian town of Mouadamiya near Damascus on Wednesday, witnesses said, in the latest rebel withdrawal from remaining pockets of opposition around the Syrian capital.

Under an amnesty deal with the government, 1,800 people including 700 rebels left Mouadamiya for Idlib, the largest area under control of the myriad insurgent groups seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad, the witnesses said.

Assad has in recent months used siege and bombardment to force rebels from areas they control around Syria’s main cities, allowing them to leave with their families and light weapons and surrendering territory to the government.

In the last two months, while attention has focused on the battle for Aleppo further north, rebels pulled out of Daraya, west of Damascus, and two suburbs to the north, allowing Assad to consolidate control around the capital which his opponents came close to encircling at one stage in the five-year conflict.

Rebels still hold areas south and east of Damascus.

Assad has made a similar offer to the besieged rebels in eastern Aleppo, where the army backed by Russian jets, have been launching an offensive and where they have declared temporary ceasefires to encourage residents to depart.

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Rebels have accused the government of compelling them to accept such deals or face full scale assaults on besieged areas risking very high civilian casualties.

They also say the deals are designed to remove Sunni Muslims from sensitive areas in cities, a charge the government denies.

Wednesday’s departure of rebels from Mouadamiya was not officially covered by state media and there was no announcement of the terms under which they and their families left for Idlib.

Previous agreements, including the one for neighboring Daraya in August, allowed rebels to take with them light weapons and offered civilians the option of also traveling to Idlib or moving to new accommodation in government-held areas.

Smaller groups of people have been leaving Mouadamiya since September under agreements struck with the government, including displaced people from Daraya who had sought refuge after their own homes were threatened.

Last week hundreds of insurgents and their families left two towns on the northern outskirts of Damascus, Qudsiya and al-Hama under a similar agreement.

Reporting By Angus McDowall; Additional reporting by Kinda Makieh in Damascus; Editing by Dominic Evans