Fresh rebel evacuations from Syria’s Douma

Children wave as buses carrying Jaish al-Islam fighters and their families from their former rebel bastion of Douma arrive at the Abu al-Zindeen checkpoint controlled by Turkish-backed rebel fighters near the northern Syrian town of Al Bab
AFP

Damascus (Syria) (AFP) – A new group of Islamist rebels and other civilians left Syria’s Douma on Friday, state media said, paving the way for the government to declare full control over the onetime opposition enclave.

The evacuations are part of a negotiated withdrawal reached last weekend for Douma, the final holdout in the rebels’ former stronghold of Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus. 

State news agency SANA reported the departures from Douma were ongoing on Friday, “in preparation for announcing it cleared of terrorists”.

In the morning, 95 empty buses entered Douma to carry out civilians and rebels from Jaish al-Islam, the opposition faction present in the town. 

More than 60 have reemerged full of fighters and their relatives and were waiting at a gathering point on the edge of Ghouta for the rest of the buses, state media reported.

Once the convoy was complete, they would move together to opposition-controlled territory in northern Syria. 

The evacuations are part of a deal brokered by Damascus’s Russian ally to re-establish regime control over Ghouta, an area just on the edge of the capital that had escaped government control since 2012.

Moscow has said it expected 40,000 civilians and 8,000 rebels to leave Douma. 

Jaish al-Islam said it only agreed to pull out of Douma after a suspected chemical attack on April 7 that appeared to break their will.

Some 4,000 people had already left overnight aboard 85 buses, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

“Over the past few days, most of the Jaish al-Islam fighters have left Douma in four successive waves,” said the Britain-based monitor’s head, Rami Abdel Rahman.

The government has consistently denied using chemical weapons, including in Douma, and invited the world’s top chemical watchdog to investigate.

A team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is expected to start their work in Douma on Saturday.

“The evacuation operation should wrap up before the OPCW experts enter Douma,” Abdel Rahman said.

According to local medics and a statement by the World Health Organization, more than 40 people died in the April 7 strike on Douma, suffering symptoms consistent with the use of chemical weapons.

Jaish al-Islam has already handed over or destroyed their heavy weapons.

Russia announced on Thursday that the entire territory that was once the Eastern Ghouta rebel enclave was now under pro-regime control.

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