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More than 1,600 rebels to evacuate Eastern Ghouta

The deal was announced on Wednesday and brokered by the Syrian regime and Russia [AFP]

Date of publication: 22 March, 2018

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Buses prepared to enter a bombed-out town in Syria's Eastern Ghouta on Thursday after an agreement to evacuate hundreds of rebels and their families following weeks of regime bombardment.
More than 1,600 fighters and thousands of their family members are expected to leave Syria's Eastern Ghouta on Thursday after a deal was announced to evacuate rebels and civilians following weeks of regime bombardment.

Buses waited outside a bombed-out town in the area after a deal was announced on Wednesday.

The deal, brokered by regime ally Russia, could mark a major step forward in government efforts to secure the nearby capital Damascus.

The evacuations from Harasta had been scheduled to start at 5am GMT, but an AFP correspondent at a government checkpoint on the edge of the town said they were running late.

A spokesman for hardline Islamist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham, which controls the town, said they would go ahead nonetheless. 

Eastern Ghouta has faced a blistering assault by the army and allied militia since February 18 that has taken back most of the enclave and sliced what remains into three pockets held by different rebel groups.

The evacuation agreement for Harasta could increase pressure on the rebel groups that control the other two pockets to follow suit. Ahrar al-Sham spokesman Munzer Fares said on Wednesday that the deal would see the rebels head to northern Syria with their weapons.

The AFP correspondent saw Syrian and Russian soldiers waiting on a dusty square near the town, as ambulances were stationed nearby.

A dozen white buses were parked by the side of the road into the enclave.

The rebels and their families will be transported to the northwestern province of Idlib, which is held by a myriad of jihadist, Islamist and secular groups.

The so-called evacuation deals come after years of siege and bombardment that have been a major strategy by the Syrian army to force rebels to surrender and help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recover all of Aleppo, Homs and other areas.

Eastern Ghouta is home to more than 400,000 people living under crippling regime siege, with little access to food or medical resources. World leaders and government officials have sharply criticised the Assad regime for its indiscriminate bombing and called for an immediate halt.

But airstrikes continued to pound Ghouta on Thursday, with monitors confirming at least 19 were killed as the Syrian regime pressed an offensive on the Damascus suburb.

Air raids in the area of Zamalka alone killed 16 civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Britain-based monitor says the Syrian regime and its ally Russia are responsible for raids on the enclave, although Moscow has denied conducting airstrikes in Ghouta.

The government's offensive on Ghouta has killed more than 1,500 civilians since February 18, according to the war monitor.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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