Rebel evacuations from Syria's eastern Ghouta commence

A Russian soldier allied with the regime stands at the entrance of Harasta in Eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, on March 22, 2018.
A Russian soldier allied with the regime stands at the entrance of Harasta in Eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, on March 22, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

HARASTA, SYRIA (AFP) - Syrian rebels began leaving eastern Ghouta on Thursday (March 22), state media said, under the first such evacuation deal from the battered opposition enclave outside Damascus.

State television announced the “departure of 547 people from Harasta so far, including 88 fighters”.

A military source told AFP the rebels and accompanying civilians had boarded buses and were waiting in a buffer zone to cross over into regime-controlled territory.

The deal, announced on Wednesday and brokered by regime ally Russia, could mark a major step forward in government efforts to secure the nearby capital, Damascus.

The evacuations from Harasta had been scheduled to start at 0500 GMT, but an AFP correspondent at a government checkpoint on the edge of the town said they were running late.

A spokesman for hardline Islamist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham, which controls the town, said they would go ahead nonetheless.

A member of a committee involved in the negotiations said 1,600 fighters and thousands of members of their families were expected to leave.

Eastern Ghouta has faced a blistering assault by the army and allied militia since Feb 18 that has taken back most of the enclave and sliced what remains into three pockets held by different rebel groups.

The evacuation agreement for Harasta could increase pressure on the rebel groups that control the other two pockets to follow suit.

Ahrar al-Sham spokesman Munzer Fares said on Wednesday that the deal would see the rebels head to northern Syria with their weapons.

The AFP correspondent saw Syrian and Russian soldiers waiting on a dusty square near the town, as ambulances were stationed nearby.

A dozen white buses were parked by the side of the road into the enclave.

The rebels and their families will be transported to the northwestern province of Idlib, which is held by a myriad of extremist and secular groups.

The government's offensive on Ghouta has killed more than 1,500 civilians since Feb 18, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.