Assad set for key victory | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 23, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:33 AM, March 23, 2018

Assad set for key victory

First rebels quit Ghouta under Russia-brokered deal; dozens more killed

Syrian rebels and their families began leaving Syria's Eastern Ghouta yesterday under the first evacuation deal in the shrinking opposition enclave outside Damascus.

The agreement, announced on Wednesday and brokered by regime ally Russia, could empty one of three rebel-held pockets in the region and mark a major advance in government efforts to secure the nearby capital.

It could also increase pressure on rebels to follow suit in the two other opposition-held pockets of the besieged enclave, where tens of thousands of civilians remain trapped under relentless bombardment.

State television said around 1,130 people -- including more than 230 fighters -- had boarded buses from the Eastern Ghouta town of Harasta, until now held by the Ahrar al-Sham rebel group.

A military source told AFP the rebels and accompanying civilians had boarded buses and were in a buffer zone, waiting to cross into regime-controlled territory.

Another military source said around 2,000 people are expected to leave in total, including around 700 fighters on Thursday.

Ahrar al-Sham spokesman Munzer Fares said the evacuations could last several days.

They followed renewed air strikes in Ghouta early yesterday which killed 20 civilians, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Since February 18, a devastating Russian-backed offensive on Eastern Ghouta has sliced the shrinking enclave into three isolated pockets.

The evacuation from Harasta will further isolate the rebel groups that control the remaining two pockets of Eastern Ghouta and pile pressure on them to accept similar deals.

Opposition figures in Ghouta said talks were under way for a deal to evacuate rebels from the enclave's main town, Douma. Douma is controlled by the Jaish al-Islam group, while a pocket of territory around the town of Zamalka, closer to the capital, is held by Faylaq al-Rahman with a small jihadist presence.

Air strikes on Zamalka killed 16 civilians yesterday, the Observatory said.

An AFP reporter in Douma said hundreds of civilians were fleeing the town.

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