Relentless bombing forces Syrian rebels and civilians from Damascus stronghold | News | DW | 14.05.2017
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Relentless bombing forces Syrian rebels and civilians from Damascus stronghold

The relocation comes after a months' long bombing campaign by the Syrian military, with support from Russia and Iran. It's the last rebel stronghold in the capital, with many people being sent north to Idlib province.

About 1,500 rebels and civilians have been evacuated from the Qaboun district of Damascus after enduring months of bombing attacks. The discovery of a network of tunnels forced their hand.

The rebels were cornered overnight in a small section of Qaboun, on the northeastern edge of the Syrian capital, and agreed to the evacuation deal. After a nearly three-month-long bombing campaign, which included air strikes and artillery shelling, much of the area has been reduced to rubble.

A one-day ultimatum was set last Tuesday, giving rebels an opportunity to surrender and be relocated to Idlib province in the north, before the Syrian military resumed its devastating bombardment of the district.

"The regime has threatened to destroy what is left of Qaboun and will not accept anything but a military solution," said Abdullah al Qabouni, of the district's local council.

Syrian state media said Sunday afternoon that the evacuations were nearly complete and the district was now firmly under army control.

The once-bustling area had sheltered thousands of displaced people from other parts of the country throughout the six-year-old civil war. But many had already fled over the last two months as the bombing campaign intensified.

Earlier in the week, hundreds of rebels and their families were evacuated from the adjacent district of Barzeh. The rebels in both districts had survived, in part, because  a warren of tunnels connected the districts with the more rural district of Eastern Ghouta, about 6 miles (10 km) to the south, which enabled the movement of supplies.

A network of tunnels

But the army recently uncovered the network of tunnels, making it all but impossible for the rebels to continue to resist.

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"They besieged us and even medicines for children or any supplies were no longer left ... and people died of hunger," said Ahmad Khatib, who was among those who left on Friday.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has strongly advocated the evacuation deals for rebel-held areas that surrender to the government as a way to reduce bloodshed.

But the United Nations has criticized the Syrian government's practice of laying siege to certain areas as a means to force the rebels to withdraw.

In Qaboun, two women embraced and wept as they confronted the reality of parting ways.

Suad, 22, was leaving behind her friend Mona, also 22, to follow her family to Idlib province.

"I didn't want to leave, but I have to stay with my family, and they prefer to go Idlib after my uncle left with the group from Barzeh," said Suad.

"I never thought one day I'd be in this position," she added, sobbing heavily.  "I can't describe how I feel."

bik/cl (Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa)

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