Syria rebels begin Ghouta evacuation

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Smoke rises during evacuation in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria March 19, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

Syrian rebels began leaving Eastern Ghouta on Thursday, state media said, under the first such evacuation deal from the battered opposition enclave outside Damascus. State television announced the “departure of 547 people from Harasta so far, including 88 fighters”. A military source told AFP the rebels and accompanying civilians had boarded buses and were waiting in a buffer zone to cross over into regime-controlled territory.

In total, around 1,500 fighters and thousands of family members are expected to leave the town of Harasta, state news agency SANA said. The deal between the regime and the Ahrar al-Sham rebel group, which controls Harasta, was brokered by Russia and announced on Wednesday. A blistering Russia-backed regime offensive on Eastern Ghouta since February 18 has retaken 80 percent of the last opposition bastion outside the capital.

It has divided the remaining territory into three isolated pockets each held by different rebel groups. It has killed more than 1,500 civilians and caused thousands to flee, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says.

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