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Talks under way for Syria rebels to quit Ghouta town

© AFP | Smoke billows following Syrian government bombardment on the rebel-held besieged town of Harasta, in the Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of Damascus on March 12, 2018

DAMASCUS (AFP) - 

Talks were under way Wednesday on the evacuation of hardline rebels and civilians from a bombed-out town in Syria's Eastern Ghouta, government and opposition sources told AFP.

Harasta is held by the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham opposition group and lies in the western part of Ghouta -- once the rebels' most important bastion on the outskirts of Damascus.

Syrian troops have recaptured 80 percent of Ghouta and are seeking to oust rebels from the remaining pockets through a blend of military pressure and negotiations.

The Russian military, which has backed Syria's army for years, was negotiating with Ahrar al-Sham on a possible evacuation, according to Syrian reconciliation minister Ali Haidar.

"There is communication today between the Russian Centre for Reconciliation and fighters from Ahrar al-Sham in Harasta, but a final deal has not been reached yet," Haidar told AFP.

He said the Syrian government was not directly involved in the talks but would be "ready to implement" any agreement.

A member of the reconciliation committee for Damascus says talks on Wednesday were focused especially on the evacuation of civilians from Harasta.

The Russian Centre for Reconciliation negotiates and monitors ceasefires in Syria. It is managed by Moscow's military and is operated from the Hmeimim airbase, along Syria's western coast.

Russia's defence ministry said Wednesday that it had opened a "humanitarian corridor" from Harasta, through which 15 rebels and 300 civilians had exited into government-controlled territory over the past day.

It is the third such route that Syria's army and its allies claim to have opened from Ghouta, where they have waged a month-old assault on beleaguered rebels.

The shrinking opposition-held rump of Ghouta has been split into three pockets, each held by different rebel factions.

Last week, those three groups -- including Ahrar al-Sham -- said they would be willing to hold direct talks with Russia on a ceasefire for Ghouta.

There was no immediate comment from Ahrar on Wednesday, but a member of the opposition-run Harasta council confirmed talks were under way.

The source told AFP the discussions included the evacuation of Ahrar fighters to other opposition-run zones and the return of public services to the town.

Syria has used such "reconciliation deals" in the past to secure swathes of territory around Damascus and elsewhere.

© 2018 AFP