Tearful Syrians leave rebel enclave in largest evacuation yet
More than 5,000 Syrian rebels and civilians left a ravaged pocket of Eastern Ghouta on Sunday, in fresh evacuations that further emptied the former rebel bastion.
Five weeks since the Syrian regime launched an all-out assault on Ghouta, it holds more than 90 percent of the onetime opposition stronghold on the edge of Damascus. To help it capture the rest, key backer Russia has held talks with various rebel groups to negotiate withdrawals from the three remaining pockets.
One area was emptied in recent days under such a deal and thousands left a second part held by the Islamist Faylaq al-Rahman rebel faction on Sunday.
More than 5,400 fighters, their relatives and other civilians left the towns of Arbin and Zamalka and the district of Jobar aboard 81 buses on Sunday, according to state television. Many of the buses left rebel territory early in the day but were delayed at a nearby checkpoint for several hours as they waited for the full convoy to gather. They were searched by Syrian troops, who checked fighters were leaving with light weapons only, before Russian military personnel boarded each bus.
In the early hours of Monday morning, the buses resumed their journey north to the province of Idlib in the largest single day of evacuations yet for Ghouta. They are expected to pave the way for an announcement by Damascus that the zone once held by Faylaq al-Rahman had come under government control.
The deal with Faylaq al-Rahman, brokered by Russia and announced on Friday, provides for the evacuation of 7,000 rebels and civilians from the pocket of Ghouta it controlled. Around 980 left Ghouta in a first batch on Saturday night and travelled all night to reach northwest Syria early Sunday.
Talks are also underway for a deal over the third and final pocket of Ghouta, which includes the region's largest town, Douma.
Residents of Arbin, Zamalka and Jobar had been bidding tearful farewells to their hometowns all morning, dragging shabby suitcases past bombed-out buildings.
"I'm a civilian and never carried weapons – I was forced to leave my hometown because of the intense bombing," said Abu Yazan, an evacuee in his twenties.
Hamza Abbas, an opposition activist in Zamalka, told journalists they did not have much to look forward to in Idlib.
"They have no money, no houses, no furniture or even clothes to take with them because of this bombardment," he told journalists.
Faylaq al-Rahman's deal with Moscow offered residents the option to stay as Ghouta fell to the regime, but Abbas declined.
"I decided to leave Ghouta because how am I supposed to live alongside someone who killed my family, my siblings, my friends? With someone who destroyed me, my life and my future?"
More than 1,600 civilians have died since the Ghouta assault began on 18 February, says the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Even before the onslaught, the enclave's 400,000 residents had suffered a crippling regime siege that severely limited access to food and medicine since 2013.
Syria's government has used siege tactics followed by heavy bombardment and negotiated settlements to recapture swathes territory lost to rebels. Damascus and Moscow have applied this "leave or die" strategy to Ghouta, smashing the enclave into three isolated pockets before seeking separate evacuation deals for each.
The first Russian-brokered agreement saw hardline Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham agree to quit the town of Harasta.
More than 4,500 people, including over 1,400 fighters, left Harasta for Idlib on Thursday and Friday.
Evacuations under the deal with Faylaq al-Rahman began late on Saturday and rebels only arrived on Sunday morning to Qalaat al-Madiq, a crossing point frequently used in such agreements.
An agency correspondent at the transfer point in the central Hama province saw 17 buses and ambulances arrive early Sunday with the first wave of evacuees, who would then head to Idlib. Tens of thousands of people bussed out of opposition territory have been brought to Idlib in recent years under "reconciliation" deals like those negotiated in Ghouta.
A third set of talks, over Douma, may not result in an evacuation deal, said Jaish al-Islam spokesman Hamza Bayraqdar late on Sunday.
"The ongoing negotiations with Russia are to stay in Douma, not to leave it," said Bayraqdar, without providing additional details.
Analyst Nawar Oliver told journalists the talks over Douma were more likely to result in "an equitable agreement" allowing rebels to maintain their presence in the town.
The deal could "involve turning Jaish al-Islam to a local force, the return of regime institutions and services like electricity and water to Douma, without a government security presence," he said.
Syria's conflict erupted in March 2011 with anti-government protests, but has since evolved into a complex and devastating civil war. (AFP)