Deal struck between rebels, Russia to evacuate wounded from Douma

Negotiators in the last rebel-held bastion in Syria’s eastern Ghouta reached a deal on Saturday with the Russian side to evacuate the wounded from Douma to rebel-held northern Syria, local sources familiar with the deal said.

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The agreement was reached by the negotiating committee that comprises both civic leaders and representatives of Jaish al-Islam, the rebel faction in control of Douma, the sources said.

The committee has been negotiating a deal to spare the city a military assault by the Syrian army and its allies who encircle it. They have threatened to storm the city if rebels do not agree to surrender the last patch in the enclave in return for safe passage to insurgent-held territory in northwestern Syria.

The Syrian army command said on Saturday it had regained most of the towns and villages in eastern Ghouta and was pressing its military operations in the last rebel bastion of Douma.

A last group of fighters and families had earlier left the main towns of Jobar, Zamalka, Arbeen and Ain Tarma after the fall of other towns, leaving only the city of Douma still in rebel hands.

Tens of thousands of people have now evacuated once-bustling towns in the suburbs east of the capital, which had nearly 2 million people before the start of the conflict and were major commercial and industrial hubs.

The army command said military operations were continuing in the outskirts of the city of Douma, controlled by the Jaish al-Islam rebel group, the last patch of eastern Ghouta still held by insurgents.

Douma’s fall would seal the rebels’ worst defeat since 2016, driving them from their last big stronghold near the capital, and would also carry potent symbolism. The town was the main centre of street protests in the Damascus suburbs against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule that ignited the conflict seven years ago.

The army said hundreds of rebels had been killed in the ferocious offensive. The opposition says a relentless air campaign was waged in which the army used napalm, chlorine and incendiary bombs to demoralize rebels by targeting civilian areas.

The rebels say the indiscriminate bombing forced them to capitulate and agree to surrender deals that force them either to make peace or leave to rebel-held areas after weeks of bombing and sieges that prevented food from reaching the enclaves.

The Syrian army has repeatedly said regaining control over rebel-held suburbs would stop rocket attacks on the capital.

They deny that many civilians were killed in bombardments that rescuers and residents say reduced whole neighbourhoods to rubble in densely populated areas where at least 350,000 people lived.

Tens of thousands of civilians remain in Douma, which is the largest urban centre in the enclave, facing worsening humanitarian conditions.

The Syrian army offers defeated rebels either the option of making peace and switching sides or surrendering their weapons and leaving for government-controlled areas.

The Russian-backed offensive in eastern Ghouta has killed more than 1,600 civilians and thousands of wounded, rescuers said. The authorities say about 150,000 people have now been displaced from eastern Ghouta.

Thousands of people fighters, their families and other civilians have been leaving for northwestern Syria from other parts of eastern Ghouta in convoys of buses that have been given safe passage to Idlib province.

Many evacuees who arrived at rebel-held territory after a grueling trip through government-controlled villages said many residents hurled abuses and threw shoes and stones at their buses.

The conflict began after mass protests calling for an end to Assad’s authoritarian rule on March 15 2011, dragging in regional and global powers and forcing millions of people – more than half the pre-war population – to flee their homes.

(REUTERS)