Deal reached to evacuate 2nd pocket of Syria’s Ghouta
Beirut – An agreement was reached Friday to evacuate the second of three pockets held by opposition fighters east of the capital Damascus hours after the main rebel group in the area declared a cease-fire to give negotiations with the Russians and the Syrian government a chance, state media and the armed opposition group said.
Shortly before the cease-fire went into effect at midnight Thursday, intense government attacks killed at least 37 people in an underground shelter, prompting the truce and later the agreement between Faylaq al-Rahman rebel group and the government to evacuate the area.
Friday’s agreement will mean the surrender of the second of three pockets in eastern Ghouta, where rebels have been holding up over the past years. On Thursday, hundreds streamed out of Harasta, the first pocket after a similar negotiated cease-fire and evacuation of armed fighters and civilians.
The rebel group Faylaq al-Rahman, which controls the second pocket, asked for the latest cease-fire after the intensified assault on territories it controls.
Faylaq al-Rahman, the second most powerful group in eastern Ghouta, said in a statement that it reached an agreement with the Russians over areas it controls in eastern Ghouta. It added that the deal will lead to the immediate evacuation of sick and wounded people for treatment and to allow aid to enter the besieged area.
The group added that opposition fighters and their relatives who decide to leave eastern Ghouta will head to rebel-held parts of northern Syria while civilians who decide to stay will be guaranteed safety.
It said that Russian military police will deploy in Faylaq al-Rahman-controlled areas. A prisoner exchange will take place between the group and the government, the group added.
Rabieh Dibeh, correspondent for state-affiliated al-Ikhbariya TV said 7,000 civilians and Faylaq al-Rahman fighters will begin leaving the four suburbs as early as Saturday.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it is not clear whether Faylaq al-Rahman members will head to the rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib or to northern regions controlled by Turkish troops and Turkey-backed opposition fighters.
In the worst violence Thursday, a single airstrike hit the shelter in the town of Arbeen, where dozens of residents were taking refuge. Rescue teams, known as the White Helmets, said 37 people were killed. Another medical group that supports health facilities operating in the area, the Syrian American Medical Society, put the toll at 47, saying many of them were burned to death and that number was likely to rise.
The strike came as government ground forces advanced into the town of Hazeh, south of Arbeen, the Observatory reported.
A similar deal with another rebel group, Ahrar al-Sham, led to the evacuation of hundreds of fighters and civilians from Harasta, an eastern Ghouta town in the north.
The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement on Friday that 1,895 rebels and their family members left the town of Harasta on Thursday. They headed to the northwestern Idlib province, one of a few remaining areas in the hands of the opposition.
Syrian state-run Al-Ikhbariya TV broadcast from the Harasta crossing area Friday, saying that a convoy of 32 buses carrying more than 2,061 people was getting ready to leave Friday night.