Middle East

Syria war: Rebel evacuations from Eastern Ghouta gather pace

People prepare to board a bus to evacuate one of the few remaining rebel-held pockets in Arbin, Eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, on March 24, 2018 Image copyright AFP
Image caption Those boarding the buses were searched and then given food and water

Syrian rebel groups have pulled out of more towns in the Eastern Ghouta, as the government tightens it grip on the enclave outside Damascus.

Buses carrying fighters, their families and others left the area late on Saturday, leaving the city of Douma as the last rebel-held stronghold.

The evacuations followed a deal between government forces and a local rebel group, Faylaq al-Rahman.

About 70% of the Eastern Ghouta is now under government control.

Hundreds of people have been killed since Syrian government forces, supported by the Russian military, launched an offensive on the rebel-held territory last month.

In recent weeks, they have cut the Eastern Ghouta into three separate pockets, forcing rebels to negotiate withdrawals.

Saturday's evacuations from the towns of Zamalka, Arbin and Ain Tarma had been due to start in the morning but buses only arrived in the afternoon.

Footage showed the buses queuing at a crossing point into the enclave before travelling along a route cleared of wreckage and unexploded shells and mines.

Under the agreement between government forces and Faylaq al-Rahman, some 7,000 people in total will be driven to opposition-held territory in north-western Idlib province.

On Sunday, residents in Arbin were packing in preparation for more evacuations - although it was unclear when buses would arrive.

Negotiations with another rebel group, Jaish al-Islam, about the surrender of Douma are understood to be continuing.

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Media captionEastern Ghouta: A mother's diary of life under siege

Syrian state TV broadcast pictures of troops moving into towns abandoned by rebels, highlighting trenches and other fortifications left behind.

It also showed prisoners released by the rebels being loaded into minibuses.

Another deal struck last week saw thousands of people evacuated from the town of Harasta on Friday.

The rebels in the Eastern Ghouta encompass multiple factions, including jihadists, and in-fighting between them has led to losses of ground to the Syrian government.

Jaish al-Islam and its rival Faylaq al-Rahman are the largest groups.

The Eastern Ghouta is so close to Damascus that rebels have been able to fire mortars into the heart of the capital, leading to scores of civilian deaths.

Rebel rocket fire reportedly killed a young Syrian footballer and wounded seven others as they were training in Damascus on Saturday.

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