Syria’s regime drew closer to taking full control of Eastern Ghouta on Monday as state media reported that fighters began evacuating the last rebel-held pocket of the former opposition stronghold near Damascus.
A Russian-brokered deal had been reported on Sunday for fighters with Jaish al-Islam, the largest rebel group still in Ghouta, to leave the enclave’s main town of Douma.
But the rebels have not yet confirmed the agreement, amid reports of divisions in the group as hardline fighters refuse to abandon their posts.
The retaking of Eastern Ghouta would mark a major milestone in President Bashar al-Assad’s efforts to regain control of territory seized by rebel factions during Syria’s seven-year civil war.
Assad’s forces have retaken 95 percent of Eastern Ghouta since launching a blistering assault on the besieged enclave on February 18, killing 1,600 civilians and displacing tens of thousands more.
State media on Monday said Jaish al-Islam fighters and members of their families had started leaving Douma in preparation for them heading to a rebel-held town in northern Syria.
Buses carrying 1,146 Jaish al-Islam members and their families left Douma headed for Jarabulus, after a wait of several hours, state news agency SANA said.
– ‘We will stay’ –
Pro-regime newspaper Al-Watan said in an editorial on Monday it was a matter of hours until Douma was declared a “town empty of terrorism”.
“The town of Douma has come closer to joining other villages and areas of (Eastern) Ghouta taken back by the army,” it said.
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