Damascus : Syria’s regime drew closer to taking full control of Eastern Ghouta on Monday as state media reported that fighters began evacuating from the last rebel-held pocket of the former opposition stronghold near Damascus.
A Russian-brokered deal had been reported on Sunday for fighters with Jaish al-Islam, the largest rebel group still in Ghouta, to leave the enclave’s main town of Douma.
But the rebels have not yet confirmed the agreement, amid reports of divisions in the group as hardline fighters refuse to abandon their posts. The retaking of Eastern Ghouta would mark a major milestone in President Bashar al-Assad’s efforts to regain control of territory seized by rebel factions during Syria’s seven-year civil war. Assad’s forces have retaken 95 per cent of Eastern Ghouta since launching a blistering air and ground assault on the besieged enclave on February 18, killing 1,600 civilians and displacing tens of thousands more, reports AFP.
State media said Jaish al-Islam fighters and their families had started leaving Douma, in preparation for them heading to a rebel-held town in northern Syria.
“A group of buses carrying a number of Jaish al-Islam terrorists and their families leave Douma in preparation of them being transported to Jarabulus,” state news agency SANA said, using the government’s term for all rebel fighters.
State television said six buses had left Douma, the only opposition holdout six weeks after the start of the offensive. The rebels have been negotiating with Russia, a key ally of Assad, for days on an agreement to evacuate Douma.
Late on Sunday, Russian news agency Interfax quoted General Yuri Yevtushenko saying a “preliminary deal” had been reached to evacuate Jaish al-Islam fighters from Eastern Ghouta. Jaish al-Islam has previously said it would not leave Douma and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported divisions within its ranks.
“There are attempts to convince the hardline wing of Jaish al-Islam not to obstruct the agreement with the Russians,” the head of the Britain-based monitor, Rami Abdel Rahman, said on Monday.