01 Apr 2018 – 16:16
By PHILIP ISSA | AP
BEIRUT: A rebel faction trapped by Syrian government forces outside the capital agreed to evacuate to northern Syria on Sunday as talks continued over lifting the siege against the town of Douma, where tens of thousands of civilians await relief.
Fighters from the Faylaq al-Rahman group left Douma on buses sent by the Syrian government to the rebel-held province of Idlib, SANA state news agency reported.
It was the first organized evacuation of fighters from Douma, which has held out against government forces through 7 years of war. The town was one of the hubs of the Arab Spring uprising against President Bashar Assad’s government in 2011, which drew a brutal response from security forces, sparking the ongoing civil war.
Some 1,300 fighters, activists, and civilians signed up to leave the town, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Douma remains in the control of the powerful Army of Islam rebel group. Local activists say over 100,000 civilians are trapped inside the town, which suffered catastrophic damage during the latest government assault.
Faylaq al-Rahman did not have a significant presence in Douma, in the eastern Ghouta region outside Damascus. They were instead pushed into the town by a recent government offensive that broke rebel lines and cleaved eastern Ghouta into three parts, said local media activist Ahmad Khansour.
The fighters in Douma were following their Faylaq al-Rahman comrades trapped in the other two Ghouta pockets, who relocated to northern Syria last week. Government forces extended their control over those areas in the course of a five-week offensive that killed at least 1,600 civilians and displaced tens of thousands more, according to the Observatory, an opposition-linked group that monitors both sides of the conflict.
Rebels, activists, and thousands of civilians agreed to leave instead of submit to the government’s authority, and evacuated on buses.
Army of Islam and Douma representatives have been in talks with Russia, an ally of Assad, over putting the town under the guardianship of the Russian military, instead of surrendering it directly to Syrian government forces