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Sunday, 18 March 2018

Syria rebels leave small pocket south of Damascus: Observatory said

AFP , Tuesday 13 Mar 2018
Aid workers
Aid workers wait for busses carrying rebel fighters and their families to arrive in the Qalaat al-Madiq village in the province of Hama, on March 13, 2018, after being evacuated from the Qadam neighbourhood on the outskirts of Damascus under a deal agreed between the government and opposition fighters. (Source: AFP)
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Syria's army evacuated several hundred Islamist fighters from a small pocket they had held for years south of Damascus Tuesday and bussed them to the north of the country, a monitor said.

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent confirmed the evacuation from the district of Qadam. AFP's correspondent in the northwestern province of Idlib, the last to largely escape government control, saw some of the estimated 300 fighters arrive.

"An agreement reached in September 2017 between the regime and Islamist factions, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), was implemented today," the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

HTS is made up mostly of former members of Al-Qaeda's ex-affiliate in Syria. The other main group present in Qadam was Ajnad al-Sham.

"At least 1,300 people, including fighters with their relatives, have been transferred," the Britain-based Observatory's head, Rami Abdel Rahman, said.

Most of them went to Idlib, a province in Syria's northwest where many rebels evacuated in previous such deals have also washed up.

An official from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in Damascus confirmed the organisation was involved in evacuation proceedings from Qadam but could not provide numbers.

An AFP correspondent saw some of the fighters, their assault rifles strapped over their shoulders coming off buses in Qalaat al-Madiq, a town on the southern edge of Idlib province.

Syria's government has managed to retake several areas around Damascus with a combination of evacuations and "reconciliation" deals that see rebelling towns brought back under regime control.

Qadam itself has seen both: jihadists were evacuated from the town in 2016, and other rebels in the town agreed to join the ranks of the regime.

The district is smaller than and not connected to Eastern Ghouta, an area east of the capital which is home to hundreds of thousands of civilians and rebels.

The regime is waging a fierce air and ground offensive but also pursuing talks with armed groups still holding the rump of the rebel enclave.

Civilians needing medical treatment were evacuated Tuesday for the first time since the assault was launched on February 18.

The deal that saw the government reclaim Qadam could pave the way for further evacuations from small pockets that still escape the government.

Among them are the Damascus neighbourhoods of Jobar, Hajar al-Aswad and Yarmuk, a Palestinian refugee camp that still shelters fighters from the Islamic State jihadist group.

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