Rebels 'agree evacuation deal' in Eastern Ghouta town

Rebels 'agree evacuation deal' in Eastern Ghouta town
Fighters from Ahrar al-Sham have reportedly agreed to lay down their arms in return for safe passage to an opposition-held area, after weeks of regime bombardment on Eastern Ghouta.
3 min read
21 March, 2018
A relentless Russian-backed assault that began last month has killed hundreds of people [AFP]
A rebel group in Syria's besieged Eastern Ghouta has agreed to lay down its arms in a Russian-brokered deal to evacuate part of the last-remaining rebel bastion.

Members of Ahrar al-Sham in control of the besieged town of Harasta have agreed to stop fighting in return for safe passage to insurgent-controlled areas and an offer to be pardoned under local reconciliation terms with the authorities for those who want to stay, two opposition sources told Reuters on Wednesday.

However, there was no indication when the deal would be implemented and one source said obstacles may delay it for a few days.

The Syrian army and allied forces have recaptured 70 percent of the territory that was under rebel control in the enclave after weeks of bombardment.

The relentless Syrian regime assault backed by Russian air power that began last month has killed hundreds of people as airstrikes pounded residential areas where thousands had sheltered in basements across the densely populated enclave.

The evacuation deals come after years of siege and bombardment that have been a major strategy by the Syrian army to force rebels to surrender and help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recover all of Aleppo, Homs and other areas.

"The deal has been finalised and it could come into effect soon after a ceasefire is announced as early as Wednesday," said one official familiar with the talks that have been going on for several days.

It would begin with an evacuation of injured civilians, he added, saying the remaining civilians in the town were "facing untold suffering".

A local official in the opposition-run Harasta council was quoted by opposition news outlets that a deal had been reached but did not say when it was expected to be implemented.

More than 100 civilians were killed in the last two days of air strikes in Eastern Ghouta with most of the raids on Douma city, the largest population centre with more than 150,000 people still living there.

Rebels and residents say napalm and incendiary weapons were dropped on several civilian areas to force rebels to surrender. Chemical weapons watchdog OPCW is investigating the allegations.

The predicament of hundreds of rebels trapped in Harasta, one of the main towns in Eastern Ghouta, worsened after the army succeeded earlier this month in splintering Ghouta into three besieged zones, cutting off Harasta from other areas.

The defeat in Eastern Ghouta would mark the worst setback for the anti-Assad rebellion since the opposition was driven from eastern Aleppo in late 2016 after a similar campaign of siege, bombing, ground assaults and the promise of safe passage out.