Syrian army evacuates militants from small rebel pocket near capital

BEIRUT (Reuters) - The Syrian military evacuated hundreds of rebel fighters and their families from a small opposition-held pocket south of Damascus on Tuesday, a news outlet run by the government’s Hezbollah allies and a war monitor said.

The evacuation of the al-Qadam neighborhood, reported by the Hezbollah-controlled Military Media, was yet another step in the government’s campaign to eliminate all opposition-held areas near the capital.

The area is not connected to eastern Ghouta, the main rebel enclave near the capital, which has been subject to a fierce assault by pro-Syrian government forces for nearly a month. Rebels there have so far rejected a similar evacuation offer.

Military Media said buses had transported around 300 fighters from the Ajnad al-Sham group and their families from al-Qadam to Idlib province, a rebel-held area in the north, fulfilling a prior agreement between the army and the militants.

The transfer follows a pattern employed across Syria, under which the government and its Russian allies have laid siege to territory, launched air and ground assaults and provided safe passage out to rebel fighters who agree to withdraw.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said hundreds of fighters had left on buses over the past 24 hours.

Al-Qadam is surrounded by government-held territory on one side and Islamic State controlled neighborhoods on the other.

The Britain-based Observatory said there was fighting between Syrian government forces and Islamic State fighters in that area, with air strikes launched against IS.

Reporting by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Peter Graff