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Syria war: Rebels 'begin leaving key Eastern Ghouta town'


Syrian government forces drive motorbikes past buses waiting at the entrance of Harasta in the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta (22 March 2018)Image copyright

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Buses to transport the rebels and their families arrived on the outskirts of Harasta earlier

Syrian rebels and their families have begun leaving a key town in the besieged Eastern Ghouta area as part of an evacuation deal with the government.

State media said 72 rebels and 452 civilians had departed Harasta so far.

Some 1,500 fighters from the Ahrar al-Sham faction and 6,000 civilians are to be transported from Harasta to the northern rebel-held province of Idlib.

The evacuation deal is the first agreed since pro-government forces stepped up an assault on the enclave a month ago.

A monitoring group says air and artillery strikes have killed 1,500 civilians, while at least 50,000 others have fled the siege on foot in recent days.

The exodus came after soldiers and allied militiamen drove rebel forces out of about 65% of the region, cutting it into three pockets – one of them around Harasta.

The implementation of the evacuation deal, which was brokered by the government’s ally Russia, began on Thursday morning with a prisoner exchange.

State TV reported that 13 people held by the rebels were freed. It interviewed a soldier among them, who thanked God and the army for his release.

Later, the official Sana news agency said a total of 524 people had left Harasta in buses via government-controlled territory outside Damascus.

Ahrar al-Sham, which controlled Harasta, agreed to lay down its weapons in Harasta in return for safe passage to the rebel stronghold of Idlib.

The BBC’s Martin Patience in Beirut says the deal may put pressure on the rebel groups that control the two other pockets in the Eastern Ghouta to do the same.


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