As Ghouta empties, Syrians try to spot loved ones on buses

Suicide vests, grenades seized as militants & their families leave E. Ghouta – Russian MoD

A Syrian soldier flashes a victory sign as a bus of evacuated rebels moves out of the gathering point on the outskirts of Arbeen town in the capital Damascus' Eastern Ghouta area, Syria, March 26, 2018.

The rebel groups last week reached an evacuation deal with Russia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's main ally in the seven-year war.

Russian-backed Syrian troops and allied militia have waged an offensive since February 18 in which they have recaptured more than 90 per cent of Ghouta, a one-time rebel bastion on the edge of Damascus.

Both regime forces and opposition factions have been criticised by rights groups for indiscriminate attacks on civilians during the conflict.As part of the evacuation deals reached for Ghouta, rebels have released just 21 people, including civilians and soldiers, in recent days.

Four major rebel groups are now positioned inside Eastern Ghouta, namely the Islam Army, Failaq al-Rahman, Ahrar al-Sham, and the Levant Liberation Committee, known as the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front.

"We had defensive plans prepared, but regrettably Faylaq al-Rahman cut the water that was brought from Barada River", Bayraqdar told the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya TV. It put the total figure of civilians and rebels evacuated from the area since the Russia-sponsored "humanitarian pauses" were announced at 114,000 people.

The regime responded with a crippling half-decade siege of the enclave's 400,000 residents, sealing off access to food, medicines and other goods.




On February 18, the regime, its ally Russian Federation and loyalist militia launched an all-out air and ground assault that killed more than 1,600 civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Under the second deal, opposition fighters from Faylaq al-Rahman are being given safe passage to the northwest, along with thousands of civilians, in exchange for releasing prisoners they were holding.

Moscow has brokered talks with the rebel groups that control the three remaining pockets of the enclave.

"The ongoing negotiations with Russian Federation are to stay in Douma, not to leave it", said Jaish al-Islam spokesman Hamza Bayraqdar, without providing further details.

The town, controlled by the powerful Army of Islam, is also home to tens of thousands of people, including many who were displaced over the past weeks of heavy fighting.

Yuva also stressed that there have been no provocations in Syria's Idlib governorate during the ongoing military operation in Eastern Ghouta, and that Turkey has essentially supported Syrian government forces.

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