‘Final evacuation deal’ reached for Eastern Ghouta

DOUMA: A final deal has been reached for fighters and civilians to leave the last opposition-held pocket of Eastern Ghouta, a monitor said on Sunday, paving the way for Syria’s regime to retake the onetime rebel enclave near Damascus.
The deal brokered by Russia would see fighters with the Jaish al Islam rebel faction leave Ghouta’s main town of Douma for opposition-held territory in northern Syria, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
There was no immediate confirmation from the rebels, but newspaper Al Watan quoted “diplomatic sources” as saying the agreement would see fighters give up heavy weapons and leave Douma for northern Syria.
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. Backed by Russia, Assad’s forces have scored a series of victories over rebel forces in recent years, often through campaigns of siege, aerial bombardment and ground offensives that have drawn widespread international condemnation.
The Observatory, a Britain-based monitoring group, said Sunday’s deal provides for Jaish fighters and their families, as well as civilians who want, to be evacuated to rebel-held areas in the northern province of Aleppo.
These include the areas of Jarabulus and Al Bab, which are largely held by pro-Turkey rebels, it said.
It will also see Russian military police enter the town and government institutions return to the area, the monitor said. Syrian forces had already retaken more than 95 per cent of Eastern Ghouta in a six-week air and ground blitz that has killed hundreds of civilians and forced tens of thousands from their homes.
On Sunday, Pope Francis called for an end to “carnage” in Syria in his Easter message.
“Today we implore fruits of peace upon the entire world, beginning with the beloved and long-suffering land of Syria,” the pontiff said.
Syria’s conflict has killed more than 350,000 people since 2011, and spiralled into a complex war involving world powers.
Appealing to the “consciences of all political and military leaders,” Francis urged “that a swift end may be brought to the carnage”.
Successive evacuation deals were reached with rebel forces in parts of the enclave, with more than 45,000 fighters and civilians bussed out in recent weeks, according to an AFP tally of figures provided by state news agency Sana. More than 4,000 people left the devastated town of Harasta last week under a deal with the Ahrar al Sham rebel group. And more than 41,000 evacuated a southern pocket including the town of Arbin last week under another deal with the Faylaq al Rahman opposition faction.
Tens of thousands of other civilians have fled to regime-held territory.
Earlier on Sunday, an agreement had been reached with civil authorities in Douma for hundreds of civilians to leave for Idlib, a northwestern province still largely outside government control, the Observatory said. — AFP