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Defeated rebels begin leaving enclave near Syrian capital

BEIRUT (AP) -- Carrying their light arms, hundreds of defeated rebels began evacuating with their families Thursday from a devastated town in eastern Ghouta, an effective surrender under a deal with the government after a long siege and bombing campaign of the enclave on the outskirts of Damascus.
The departure of the powerful Ahrar al-Sham group - the first such arrangement for eastern Ghouta - could serve as a blueprint for fighters in other towns, bringing President Bashar Assad’s government closer to ending years of rebellion in the territory just east of the capital.
As night fell, Syrian TV showed dozens of white buses carrying opposition fighters and civilians pulling out in a long convoy after being

This photo released by the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, Civil Defense workers putting out a fire following airstrikes and shelling in Douma, in the eastern Ghouta region near Damascus, Syria this week.     --Photo AP

parked all day on a main highway. Among the 1,580 evacuees from the town of Harasta were 413 gunmen, it said.
Earlier, a few fighters with automatic rifles slung on their shoulders were seen milling around the buses. As the sun set, a group of rebels knelt on the Harasta highway and prayed.
Ahrar al-Sham is a powerful, ultra-conservative Islamic group in Syria. It is one of the smaller rebel groups based in eastern Ghouta - and the first to acknowledge defeat. Under the agreement with the Assad government, the group’s fighters and their relatives will leave their base in the town of Harasta and head to opposition-controlled Idlib in northern Syria.
The deal will see 1,500 rebels and 6,000 civilians depart, according to the state-affiliated Military Media Center.
The convoy of buses from Harasta, their headlights blazing, was reminiscent of those ferrying defeated rebels out of eastern Aleppo in late 2016, following a similar agreement with the government.
“They are leaving toward Idlib with no return,” said Rabieh Dibeh, correspondent for state-affiliated al-Ikhbariya TV, when the buses started moving.
The deal is modeled on others that have had rebels surrender swaths of territory around the capital and other major cities to the government. In all cases, the arrangements followed indiscriminate bombing campaigns against hospitals, markets and other civilian targets, driving thousands from their homes.
As Ahrar al-Sham rebels prepared to leave Harasta, thousands of civilians streamed out of other areas in eastern Ghouta that were still being bombed by the government.
Dozens of the civilians appeared to be wounded, some hobbling on crutches, another with an eye injury. Several children were seen crying in fear. A girl who appeared to be younger than 10, wearing a yellow dress, struggled to walk while carrying a toddler and some belongings.
The government assault has sparked a tide of people trying to escape the violence in the Damascus suburbs. Some have moved deeper into the rebel-held enclave, while about 50,000 others have crossed the front lines toward government-controlled areas.
The air and ground assault, which escalated Feb. 18, has seen the once- sprawling territory at the edge of the capital shrink to three disconnected rebel-held islands. That has made it only a question of when - not if - the Russian-backed government forces would recapture the entire region.



(Latest Update March 24, 2018)

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