Largest convoy of rebel fighters leaves Eastern Ghouta


DAMASCUS: The largest convoy yet of armed fighters and civilians left a devastated pocket of Eastern Ghouta early on Tuesday, further emptying the onetime Syrian rebel bastion.

Government troops, backed by Russia and loyalist militia, launched a ferocious assault more than a month ago to retake the enclave on the outskirts of of Damascus. They have recaptured more than 90 percent of it and are draining the last rebel-held pockets through negotiated withdrawals brokered by Russia. Two such deals have already seen thousands of rebels, their relatives and other civilians bused out of bombed-out Ghouta districts to Idlib, a northwestern province most of which still escapes government control.

The largest numbers have quit the towns of Arbin and Zamalka, and the adjacent district of Jobar, all controlled by the Faylaq al-Rahman Islamist faction. The group reached a deal with Moscow on Friday and its implementation began the following morning with nearly 1,000 people boarding buses and leaving. The numbers have grown steadily since, with the biggest convoy yet departing overnight after filling up all day under the supervision of Russian military police. One hundred buses carrying 6,749 people – around a quarter of them fighters – left the Faylaq-controlled pocket in the early hours of Tuesday, state news agency SANA said.

That convoy brought the total number of evacuees from the pocket to 13,165 people, and more departures were expected later on Tuesday. Faylaq al-Rahman spokesman Wael Alwan has said as many as 30,000 people could be evacuated in all.

President Bashar al-Assad has used such evacuation agreements to recover swathes of territory since the uprising against his rule began seven years ago this month. They have usually begun with the military encirclement of an area, followed by bombardment and a ground operation before a deal is reached. Eastern Ghouta lies within mortar range of Damascus, and rebels had used it repeatedly as a launchpad for rocket attacks on the capital. The regime responded with a crippling half-decade siege of the enclave’s 400,000 residents, sealing off access to food, medicines and other goods.

On February 18, the regime, its ally Russia and loyalist militia launched an all-out air and ground assault that killed more than 1,600 civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Britain-based monitor said it had also documented the detention of more than 40 men and boys by Syrian troops in recaptured areas. Devastating air strikes and artillery fire have reduced large parts of Ghouta to ruins, forcing their residents to abandon them. Some 110,000 people have fled into government-held territory, most of them on foot or motorbike, through corridors opened up by the army and its Russian allies, according to state media.

The United Nations says around 55,000 of them are housed in very basic conditions in regime-run temporary shelters on the edge of Ghouta.

Moscow has brokered talks with the rebel groups that control the three remaining pockets of the enclave. The first agreement, with hardline Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, saw more than 4,500 people, including rebel fighters, leave the town of Harasta last week. Under the second deal, rebels from Faylaq al-Rahman are being given safe passage to the northwest, along with thousands of civilians, in exchange for releasing prisoners they were holding. Eight were freed on Sunday and another 26 the following day, SANA said.

A third set of talks is underway over the final pocket – controlled by Jaish al-Islam and including the enclave’s largest town Douma. Some 200,000 people are estimated to remain in Douma, including many who fled other parts of Ghouta as regime forces advanced. Jaish al-Islam spokesman Hamza Bayraqdar has said the negotiations are focused on the rebels staying, not evacuating. Jaish al-Islam would lay down its heavy weapons in exchange for government-provided water and electricity returning to the town.

Russian military police, but not Syria’s army, would deploy there. Syria’s pro-government Al-Watan daily said the parties had three days to study the proposal.

But divisions within opposition ranks were holding up the talks with some hardliners seeking to sabotage the proposed deal, Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.