Rebels expected to evacuate Syria's Eastern Ghouta

AFP , Thursday 22 Mar 2018

A Russian soldier allied with the regime stands at the entrance of Harasta in Eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, on March 22, 2018, after a deal was struck with the rebels in the area to evacuate the town. (AFP)

Buses waited outside a bombed-out town in Syria's Eastern Ghouta on Thursday after a deal was announced to evacuate rebels and civilians following weeks of regime bombardment.

The deal, announced on Wednesday and 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 0500 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.

A member of a committee involved in the negotiations said 1,600 fighters and thousands of members of their families were expected to leave.

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 government's offensive on Ghouta has killed more than 1,500 civilians since February 18, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

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