Syria: Fighters begin leaving Ghouta's last rebel-held town

Ruben Holloway
April 5, 2018

Colonel General Sergei Rudskoy of the Russian General Staff told a conference on Wednesday that the rebel fighters were still leaving the town of Douma, but he expected the evacuation to wrap up in the coming days.

Children look out of the window of a bus upon their arrival at a checkpoint near the northern Syrian town of Al Bab on April 3, 2018.

The state news agency SANA said on Wednesday buses had entered Douma for the third consecutive day to evacuate more rebel fighters and their families to the northern Syrian city of Jarablus, near the border with Turkey.

The towns are located in a section of the Turkish-Syrian frontier where Turkey has carved out a buffer zone controlled on the ground by its military and allied fighters from Free Syrian Army rebel groups that are hostile to Assad.

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Residents trapped inside Douma expressed fear that further foot-dragging could provoke another major government offensive, like the one that killed an estimated 1,600 people across the eastern Ghouta suburbs in February and March.

State media said those on board were fighters and family members belonging to the Army of Islam, the largest rebel group in eastern Ghouta.

Russian Federation has been a key backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad, ultimately helping to turn the tide of the devastating civil war in his favor.

If confirmed, the departure of Jaish al-Islam from Douma would mark the end of the war for eastern Ghouta, wiping out an opposition stronghold near Damascus and underliningBashar al-Assad's unassailable position in the war.

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The Syrian military could not immediately be reached for comment. More than 120,000 people fled their homes under the five-week assault, seeking safety behind government lines, according to the Russian military.

The second largest chunk of Syrian territory is controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of militias spearheaded by the Syrian Kurdish YPG and supported by the US -led coalition against Islamic State.

Since 2016, the area had been controlled by the Jabhat al-Nusra (outlawed in Russia) and Jaysh al-Islam terror organizations, as well as the Ahrar al-Sham, Faylaq al-Ra·man and Fajr al-Umma groups linked to them. The source said on Tuesday the government had set a deadline for militants to leave Douma, without saying how long.

Local activists say over 100,000 civilians are trapped inside Douma, which has suffered catastrophic damage.

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Abdul Karim also said that councils of some local towns are negotiating their own terms for reconciliation.

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