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Syria rebels, civilians leave penultimate Ghouta pocket

Buses wait to evacuation Syrian rebels and civilians from one of the few remaining rebel-held in Eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus, arrive to the area on March 24, 2018.Syrian rebels and civilians prepared to evacuate the pen
ABDULMONAM EASSA (AFP)
A Russian-backed air and ground assault by Syria's army has brought most of Eastern Ghouta under gov't control

Busses carrying Syrian rebels and civilians left a battered second pocket of Eastern Ghouta late Saturday, state media said, in the latest deal for the former opposition enclave.

"Seventeen busses have exited the Arbin crossing of Eastern Ghouta, carrying 981 people including rebels and their relatives," said state news agency SANA.

The withdrawal is part of an evacuation deal that is expected to see some 7,000 people leave rebel-held towns in Ghouta for Idlib in the northwest.

Syrian rebels and civilians started evacuating the penultimate opposition-held pocket of Eastern Ghouta as the government moved ever closer to taking full control of the battered enclave.

Eastern Ghouta was the opposition's final stronghold on the edge of Damascus, but beleaguered rebels are now left with less than 10 percent of their one-time bastion.

Since February 18, a Russian-backed air and ground assault by Syrian troops has brought most of the area under government control, and Damascus is using evacuation deals to clear the last three pockets.

Talks are still ongoing for the final area around Ghouta's largest town of Douma, but negotiated withdrawals have already been reached to clear two other zones.

Fighters from the Islamist Faylaq al-Rahman faction were the latest readying to leave Eastern Ghouta, following another hardline group that quit the town of Harasta in the past few days for rebel-held Idlib province.

After several hours of delay, fighters and civilians boarded buses in the rebel-held town of Arbin and drove to a checkpoint dividing opposition-held territory from regime forces.

"Several buses carrying 500 fighters and their families have reached the Arbin crossing, in preparation for their departure from Ghouta," state news agency SANA said, adding evacuations would continue Sunday.

Relatives buried under rubble

ABDULMONAM EASSA (AFP)

The evacuations from the towns of Arbin, Zamalka, and Ain Tarma had been scheduled to begin Saturday morning, but a military source said they were delayed due to "logistical issues," including unblocking and de-mining the route they would take.

Buses entered around 4:00 pm local time (1400 GMT), and fighters, their families, and other civilians began boarding them in Arbin as night fell.

Mohammad, 20, was among them and said his departure was bittersweet.

He and his two brothers survived bombardment on their hometown, but their father did not. They were unable to extract his body from the rubble for a funeral.

"What kills us is that we couldn't bury our relatives. They stayed under the rubble," Mohammad told AFP as he limped onto a bus with his siblings.

The government has implemented a "leave or die" strategy to retake Ghouta, reducing swathes of it to rubble with air strikes and artillery fire but keeping open the offer of evacuation.

The onslaught has killed more than 1,600 civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Dozens have also been killed in rebel fire on Damascus, including a young Syrian footballer killed on Saturday despite the ongoing evacuations.

Samir Mohamad Massoud, 12, was killed in rocket fire on a prominent Damascus sports club, according to SANA.

State media said Saturday that more than 105,000 civilians had fled Ghouta in recent weeks. The army has opened three "corridors" for people to flee from newly-recaptured territory into government zones.

Once the government had whittled down rebel territory to three isolated pockets, it pursued separate negotiations with the factions in each zone.

The first deal brokered by Russia was reached with the hardline Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham for the town of Harasta.

More than 4,500 people, including over 1,400 fighters, left Harasta for Idlib over two days.

'Losing my nerves'

ABDULMONAM EASSA (AFP)

The second agreement was reached with Faylaq al-Rahman on Friday and provides for the transfer of around 7,000 people, medical treatment for wounded civilians and fighters, and the release of detainees held by the rebel group.

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.

Waiting at the edge of Ghouta, Sabah al-Salloum desperately hoped her son Munzer -- kidnapped four years ago by Ghouta rebels -- would be among them.

"I heard from the news the kidnapped would be released, and I'm losing my nerves waiting. I couldn't sleep," Salloum told AFP.

Those being bussed out of Ghouta on Saturday include civilians, rebels, and some allied jihadists from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate.

Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said the buses would go first to Idlib, then may head to Afrin -- a flashpoint town recently captured by Turkey and its rebel proxies from Kurdish forces.

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.

Syria's conflict erupted in March 2011 with anti-government protests but has since drawn in world powers, including Turkey and Russia.

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

With the conflict grinding on into its eighth year, Syria's government is more determined than ever to clear opposition holdouts around the capital to halt rebel rocket fire onto Damascus.

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

"This is the first time in many months that I slept deeply," Jumaa, 24, told AFP. "I really don't know if this is a dream or real life."

Just hours later, rocket fire hit a sports club in Damascus, killing one child and wounding seven, SANA said.

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