Hundreds of militants, family members leave Eastern Ghouta

Hundreds of militants, family members leave Eastern Ghouta

Capturing eastern Ghouta, near the capital Damascus, would be Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's biggest victory over the rebels since driving them from Aleppo in December 2016.

The departure of the rebels from their long-held Ghouta enclave means that only one other pocket of rebellion remains in the area: the city of Douma, capital of Douma district.

In the rebel pocket in the southern part of eastern Ghouta, Failaq al-Rahman, which is linked to the Free Syrian Army, had announced its intention to negotiate on Thursday, when Mr Alwan said a ceasefire had been agreed.

The deal provides for "the transfer of almost 7,000 people, fighters and their families" from an area in the south of the enclave held by rebel group Faylaq al Rahman, regime television said.

The evacuations from the towns of Zamalka, Arbin and Ain Tarma had been scheduled to begin Saturday morning, but the buses designated for the operation did not enter until the afternoon.

Talks are ongoing for the third pocket around Ghouta's largest town of Douma.

There was no immediate confirmation from Faylaq al-Rahman on whether their fighters were going to Afrin, but the faction is known to be backed by Ankara.

More than 1,600 civilians have died in Eastern Ghouta since the regime launched a blistering assault on the last rebel bastion near Damascus on February 18. On Friday, a further 30 buses carrying hundreds of fighters and civilians from Harasta awaited in a buffer zone to move into regime-held territory, state television said.

Rebels stand together as they wait to be evacuated, outisde Harasta in eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria March 23, 2018.

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The Syrian government says the Israeli regime and its Western and regional allies are aiding Takfiri terrorist groups that are wreaking havoc in the country.

In the rebel-held northwestern city of Idlib, a auto bomb exploded near a court building killing at least six people and wounding 25, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the opposition's Syrian Civil Defense.

Retaking Eastern Ghouta, a sprawling semi-rural area which had escaped government control since 2012 and lies within mortar range of central Damascus, was made a priority this year after a string of regime gains.

State television reported that more than 60 buses had left Harasta since Thursday, carrying over 3,800 people including more than 1,000 fighters.

The combatants handed over their heavy weapons and left Harasta as part of an agreement reached between the Syrian authorities and the Islamic Movement of the Free People of the Levant (frequently referred to as Ahrar al-Sham).

Syrian state TV on Saturday interviewed eight men who said they had been detained by Faylaq for over a year and were released under the settlement.

"We hate the fact that we have to leave Ghouta", said Abu Khaled, a 28-year-old jihadist fighter and Ghouta native.

Moscow played a key role in the two agreements already reached and is mediating talks for the last pocket, held by Jaish al-Islam.

Student Layal al-Jumaa who lives in a Damascus neighbourhood that overlooks Harasta woke up Saturday after a full night's sleep uninterrupted by bombardment.

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