Syria rebels say deal struck to evacuate Ghouta town


Douma (Syria) (AFP)

Syrian rebels said Wednesday they have agreed to evacuate a bombed-out town in Eastern Ghouta, the first such deal since the start of the regime's month-old assault on the enclave.

In Idlib province of northwest Syria, meanwhile, an air raid near a school in the town of Kfar Batikh killed 20 civilians, including 16 children, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The evacuation agreement, brokered by the regime's Russian ally, could empty one of three remaining pockets in Eastern Ghouta and mark a major step forward in government efforts to secure the nearby capital Damascus.

Tens of thousands of civilians remain trapped under relentless bombardment in the two other pockets of the enclave which has endured a five-year siege.

The devastating offensive launched by the regime on February 18 has sliced the shrinking enclave into three parts, one of which is controlled by the hardline Ahrar al-Sham group.

"The deal between the regime and rebels in Harasta sees rebels exiting the city with their weapons, and whichever civilians want to leave, to northern Syria with Russian guarantees," said Munzer Fares, spokesman for the Ahrar al-Sham group in Ghouta.

"The departure of families that want to leave to northern Syria will start at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) tomorrow," Fares told AFP.

Eastern Ghouta lies within mortar range of central Damascus and the deal came after the deadliest rocket attack on the capital in months killed 44 civilians on Tuesday night.

The regime's offensive on Ghouta has killed more than 1,400 civilians since February 18, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory.

- More bombardment -

The evacuated rebels are to be bussed to Idlib, a province out of government control that hosts a myriad jihadist, Islamist and secular groups, many of them with links to Turkey.

The evacuation of Harasta will further isolate the two other rebel groups controlling the rest of Eastern Ghouta and increase the pressure on them to accept a similar deal.

Syrian Reconciliation Minister Ali Haidar told AFP that Ahrar al-Sham had been talking to the Russian Centre for Reconciliation and that the Syria government was not directly involved.

Local officials in rebel-held Ghouta told AFP that talks were also under way for a deal to evacuate rebels from Douma, the main town in Eastern Ghouta.

Bombardment on rebel-held areas continued to claim civilians lives Wednesday, with at least 11 killed in Douma and Ain Terma, according to the Observatory monitoring group.

The air raid in Idlib struck near a checkpoint manned by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist group largely made up of ex-members of a former Al-Qaeda affiliate, it said.

An AFP reporter saw rescuers searching for bodies in a crater left by the strike which destroyed a shelter where children were hiding.

- 'Tragic' -

The assault on Eastern Ghouta has a sparked a mass exodus from the shrinking rebel enclave, with 50,000 people reaching shelters in regime-controlled areas in the past week, according to the United Nations.

The UN humanitarian coordinator in Syria on Wednesday condemned the "tragic" living conditions of the displaced massed in the makeshift shelters, including to the area of Adra.

"If I was a citizen, I would not accept to stay in Adra for five minutes, with this tragic situation," Ali al-Zaatari said.

Zaatari was also critical of the humanitarian situation for some 100,000 people who have fled a Turkey-led advance on the Kurdish region of Afrin in northern Syria.

Pro-Ankara forces swept into its main city -- also named Afrin -- on Sunday, sending Kurdish fighters into retreat.

"We cannot access Afrin as it's an occupied region," Zaatari said, adding that attempts were being made daily to try to reach the region's civilians.

Several people among those displaced said they would not be celebrating Kurdish New Year, or Nowruz, this year after having fled their homes under fire.

In a Kurdish area further east, thousands in brightly-coloured traditional clothes turned their Nowruz celebration on Wednesday into protests of solidarity with the city of Afrin.

They wore floral scarves, waved Kurdish flags and carried posters that pledged to win back Afrin from Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies.

"With the spirit of Nowruz, we will ramp up our resistance and win in Afrin," one banner read.