Sunday Edition

Syria’s war: Surprise rebel evacuation from Eastern Ghouta

| | BEIRUT | in Sunday Pioneer

In a surprise move, several members of Syria’s armed opposition have been evacuated from rebel-held Eastern Ghouta late on Friday, sources told Al Jazeera. The evacuation comes as the Syrian army intensified its operations in the central part of the besieged Damascus suburb, state television reported on Saturday.

Jaish al-Islam, one of the main rebel groups in Eastern Ghouta, announced it had agreed to the evacuation of several Hayat Tahrir al-Sham fighters – previously part of al-Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front – who were detained by the group in Eastern Ghouta.

According to Syrian state media, 13 fighters were evacuated with their families through the al-Wafeedin passage and bussed to Idlib province.

The agreement for the evacuation was reportedly reached with the help of the United Nations and several international entities, in addition to civil society members.

The evacuation deal came after Jaish al-Islam sent a letter last month to the UN vowing to facilitate the evacuation of the former al-Qaeda members.

Split down the middle

Syrian state TV reported that the army is close to cutting the enclave in two.

The Syrian Army was advancing near Mesraba and Mudeira, two small towns which represent the last link between the northern and southern halves of the enclave, which is located near to the Syrian capital, Damascus.

Jaish al-Islam and Failaq al-Rahman, another large rebel group in Eastern Ghouta, said they have staged counter-attacks in recent days that retook some lost positions.

The ferocious three-week assault on the last major rebel stronghold near Damascus has captured about half its area and killed 960 people, according to a war monitor. The Britain-based Syrian Obser-vatory for Human Rights also said on Saturday that warplanes, helicopters and artillery were used in bombardment of the area overnight. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russia, his main ally, say the campaign is needed to end rebel shelling of Damascus and to end the rule of rebels over the area’s civilians.

The offensive follows the pattern of previous assaults on rebel strongholds, deploying massive air power and tight sieges to force rebels to accept “evacuation” deals. These involve rebels surrendering territory in exchange for safe passage to opposition areas in northwest Syria, along with their families and other civilians who do not want to come back under Assad’s rule.




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