Syrian rebels start leaving besieged Damascus district under evacuation deal

Syrian families of opposition fighters wait to be evacuated in the Barzeh neighbourhood of the capital Damascus on May 8, 2017.
Syrian families of opposition fighters wait to be evacuated in the Barzeh neighbourhood of the capital Damascus on May 8, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Hundreds of Syrian rebels began leaving the besieged Damascus district of Barzeh on Monday (May 8) as part of an evacuation deal with the government, state media and a war monitor reported.

State television said fighters and their relatives had started departing Barzeh for rebel-held Idlib province in north-west Syria.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based war monitoring group, said buses had arrived in Barzeh at dawn and hundreds of fighters and family members had started to board them.

More people would leave over the next five days, state TV and the Observatory said.

A military spokesman from the Jaish al-Islam rebel group confirmed the evacuation had begun, but said his faction had not taken part in any negotiations about it. The spokesman, Hamza Birqdar, said the government had concluded the deal with a civilian committee in Barzeh.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has promoted the use of such evacuations, along with what his government calls"reconciliation" deals for rebel-held areas that surrender to the government, as a way of reducing bloodshed.

However, the United Nations has criticised both the use of siege tactics which precede such deals and the evacuations themselves as amounting to forcible displacement.

Barzeh, at the north-east edge of Damascus and near the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta pocket of towns and farms, has been the site of intense fighting in recent months.

On Sunday, the Syrian army advanced under intense bombardment in the Qaboun district, which adjoins Barzeh in the same besieged enclave, the Observatory said.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said the Damascus government would abide by the terms of a Russian plan for "de-escalation" zones so long as the rebels also observed the proposals.

Speaking at a televised news conference, he also said that rebels involved in the process must help to clear areas they control of extremist factions, including the group formerly known as the Nusra Front.