More rebels and civilians abandon Syria′s eastern Ghouta | News | DW | 24.03.2018
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More rebels and civilians abandon Syria's eastern Ghouta

The Russian government estimates that more than 100,000 civilians have evacuated besieged eastern Ghouta in the past month. The Syrian army is close to gaining full control of the rebel-held enclave.

The Syrian government moved closer to gaining total control of the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta on Saturday, as the second of three pockets held by opposition fighters began to carry out an evacuation of rebels and civilians.

The first pocket, in and around the city of Harasta, was surrendered by the rebels on Thursday, with evacuations beginning then and carrying on through Friday.

Syrian state media reported on Saturday that approximately 7,000 fighters, their family members and other civilians were expected to leave the towns of Zamalka, Arbin and Jobar in the second pocket of eastern Ghouta. The evacuation is the result of an agreement reached between Russia and the Syrian army, and the Islamist rebel group Faylaq al-Rahman, which has been operating in the area.

Read more: Opinion: Hell on Earth rages in Syria's eastern Ghouta, while the world watches

The Syrian army and its Russian allies have now recovered 90 percent of eastern Ghouta. The third and last pocket still held by the opposition is located in the area surrounding the city of Douma. Negotiations on the evacuation of Douma are ongoing.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited his army in eastern Ghouta(picture-alliance/dpa/SalamPix)

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited his army in eastern Ghouta just days before the first pockets began evacuations

Mass exodus

Eastern Ghouta was once a main bastion of the opposition rebels in the outskirts of Damascus, but the intense Russian-backed government offensive that began on February 18 has nearly wiped out their control. The Syrian army and its Russian allies implemented a "leave or die" strategy with deadly airstrikes on the enclave and negotiated truces with rebels.

Read more: Eastern Ghouta: Despite bomb hail, Tariq resists evacuation

The Russian and Syrian army operation has been among the fiercest of Syria's seven-year civil war and has been denounced by many in the international community. Residents and rights groups have accused the Syrian government of indiscriminate killing through inaccurate barrel bombs and the use of chlorine gas. Russia and the Syrian government have denied these claims.

Russia's Defense Ministry said on Saturday that more than 105,000 people had left the enclave of eastern Ghouta since the stepped-up operation to retake it began in February, according to RIA news agency. The United Nations has estimated the population of eastern Ghouta at 400,000. Syrian state television said most of them had exited through "humanitarian corridors" opened by Syrian troops, as part of a Russian-led ceasefire agreement.

Civilians evacuating eastern Ghouta (picture-alliance/dpa/Sana)

Activists say the siege of eastern Ghouta has killed more than 1,600 civilians

Evacuees head to Idlib

Most of Saturday's evacuees will go to Idlib province in the northwest of the country. Idlib is the last province that is still largely under rebel control. Some 2.5 million inhabitants live there, including more than 1 million people who have been displaced by fighting or evacuated from recaptured areas.

Read more: From Madaya to Idlib - 'defeated but safe'

The jihadi alliance Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, led by Syria's former al-Qaida affiliate, largely controls Idlib province, although other major Islamist rebel groups are also active in the area.

Idlib province has been the site of suspected chemical attacks on civilians. On April 4, 2017, a sarin gas attack killed at least 83 people in the town of Khan Sheikhun, according to the UN. Months later, the UN accused the Syrian regime of having carried it out. Damascus has denied the charge.

jcg/tj (AFP, AP, Reuters, DPA)

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