Syrian rebels begin fleeing Eastern Ghouta under new safety deal

After weeks of conflict that produced more than 1,200 deaths, hundreds of rebel fighters and their families began fleeing the fighting in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta region Thursday.

A man carries an elderly woman as hundreds of civilians evacuate Eastern Ghouta on March 16. Rebel fighters and their families began evacuating the area on Thursday after a deal was reached with the Syrian government. Photo by Youssef Badawi/EPA-EFE
A man carries an elderly woman as hundreds of civilians evacuate Eastern Ghouta on March 16. Rebel fighters and their families began evacuating the area on Thursday after a deal was reached with the Syrian government. Photo by Youssef Badawi/EPA-EFE

The enclave on the outskirts of the capital of Damascus was one of Syria’s last significant rebel-held areas. It is now controlled by the Syrian government and President Bashar al-Assad, who was aided in the fight by Russian air power.

The Ahrar Al-Sham fighters agreed to leave the Eastern Ghouta town of Harasta under an evacuation deal that allows them to take their weapons — and ensures their safety as they leave with their families.

As many as 1,500 fighters and 6,000 of their family members are expected to evacuate.

The fighters’ surrender leaves only Douma and a few other pockets of rebel-held areas in Eastern Ghouta — including Jobar, Ein Terma, Arbin and Zamalka.

Buses transported families Thursday out of the enclave and to the Idlib province in the northwest, near the Turkish border.

Assad visited Eastern Ghouta in a rare public appearance last week after the Syrian military announced that 80 percent of the area had been retaken for the first time in five years.

Officials say the siege of Eastern Ghouta by Syrian government troops has killed at least 1,250 people. The United Nations said at least 20,000 have fled the region since the bombings began several weeks ago.

By Susan McFarland