Douma left as Syrian rebels quit Ghouta

Members of the Syrian Civil Defence (known as the White Helmets) holding children as Syrian civilians and rebel fighters arrived in the village of Qalat al-Madiq yesterday, after being evacuated from Harasta in eastern Ghouta.
Members of the Syrian Civil Defence (known as the White Helmets) holding children as Syrian civilians and rebel fighters arrived in the village of Qalat al-Madiq yesterday, after being evacuated from Harasta in eastern Ghouta.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BEIRUT • The Syrian army paused its bombardment of Douma, the last rebel bastion in eastern Ghouta, after midnight, a war monitor said yesterday, as insurgents prepared to leave the rest of their former enclave.

Thousands of fighters and their family members left neighbouring Harasta by bus on Friday after a deal with the government to surrender the town. Insurgents in several other small towns nearby have agreed to leave on similar terms.

State television yesterday broadcast footage from a crossing point where it said preparations were beginning for those rebels' departure to north-western Syria.

It means only Douma is left of the opposition's eastern Ghouta enclave, which a month ago the United Nations said was home to 400,000 people and constituted the rebels' main stronghold near the capital Damascus.

The army offensive to capture it, heralded by one of the heaviest bombardments in the seven-year war with warplanes, helicopters and artillery, has killed more than 1,600 people, said the UK-based war monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Residents and rights groups have accused the government of using weapons that kill indiscriminately - inaccurate barrel bombs dropped from helicopters, chlorine gas and incendiary material that sets fires.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his close ally Russia, which has helped his air campaign, have denied using all those weapons and say their offensive was needed to end the rule of Islamist militants over civilians.

About 7,000 fighters, along with their family members and other civilians who do not wish to come back under Mr Assad's rule began leaving the towns of Zamalka, Arbin and Jobar yesterday , rebels and state media said.

They will go to Idlib province in the north-west - the destination for many such "evacuations" after sieges and ground offensives forced numerous rebel enclaves to surrender in the past two years.

It will not mean an end to their experience of war. Syrian military and Russian air raids on Idlib have increased in the past week, killing dozens of people.

Air strikes on Thursday killed 28 civilians - including 11 children - in Harem, an area controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a group led by Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate, the Observatory said. It came a day after an air raid on a different part of Idlib, the town of Kafr Batikh, killed 20 civilians - including 16 children - near a school.

Russia will guarantee that civilians who remain in the areas recaptured by Mr Assad will not be prosecuted, rebels said on Friday.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 25, 2018, with the headline 'Douma left as Syrian rebels quit Ghouta'. Print Edition | Subscribe