BEIRUT (Reuters) – Some 7,000 people departed eastern Ghouta for Syrian rebel territory near the Turkish border on Tuesday under a deal arranged by Russia to surrender the enclave to the Syrian government, Russian state media and a war monitor said.
Rebels have been gradually leaving Ghouta since Thursday, accepting safe passage for themselves and their families to Idlib in northwestern Syria after they were defeated in a fierce assault by the Russian-backed Syrian military.
It marks the biggest setback for the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad since insurgents were driven from eastern Aleppo in 2016, underscoring his unassailable military position in the seven-year-long conflict.
A convoy of at least 100 buses left eastern Ghouta at around 3 a.m. (0000 GMT) carrying rebel fighters, their families and other civilians who had been holed up in a pocket centered around the towns of Arbin, Ain Tarma and Zamalka.
The majority were rebel fighters and their families, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The Russian news agency TASS said almost 6,800 rebels and their families were moved from eastern Ghouta to Idlib, bringing the total number of rebels transported out of the area to 13,190 in the last three days.
Syrian state TV said the army freed 28 people who had been held captive by militants in Arbin. The Observatory said their release was part of the deal agreed by rebels.
The Syrian military split eastern Ghouta into three separate zones during its assault that began on Feb. 18 and has killed more than 1,600 people, according to the Observatory.
The pocket being evacuated at present was controlled by the Failaq al-Rahman group.
The last remaining area in Ghouta controlled by rebels is the town of Douma where tens of thousands of civilians are sheltering.
Douma is held by Jaish al-Islam, which is in talks with Russia but has publicly rejected the idea of moving to the northwest, calling this “forced displacement” that amounts to a policy of “demographic change” by the Syrian government.
Syrian state TV said buses had begun entering the Failaq al-Rahman-held zone on Tuesday to evacuate more people to Idlib.
In addition to their foothold in the northwest, anti-Assad rebels still hold a chunk of territory at the frontier with Jordan and Israel, and small enclaves near Damascus, Homs and Hama.
(Writing by Tom Perry; Additional reporting Katya Golubkova; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)