Rebels expected to evacuate Syria's Eastern Ghouta

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Harasta (Syria) (AFP)

Buses prepared to enter a bombed-out town in Syria's Eastern Ghouta on Thursday after an agreement to evacuate hundreds of rebels and their families following weeks of regime bombardment.

The evacuation agreement, announced on Wednesday and brokered by regime ally Russia, could empty one pocket of the enclave and mark a major step forward in government efforts to secure the nearby capital Damascus.

It could also increase pressure on other rebels to follow suit in the two other pockets of the besieged enclave, where tens of thousands of civilians remain trapped under relentless bombardment.

Fresh air strikes hit Ghouta early on Thursday killing 19 civilians, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Since February 18, a devastating Russian-backed offensive on Eastern Ghouta has sliced the shrinking enclave into three isolated pockets, one around the town of Harasta controlled by the hardline Ahrar-al-Sham group.

The evacuations from Harasta had been scheduled to start at 0500 GMT but an AFP correspondent at a government checkpoint on the edge of the town said they were running late.

Ahrar al-Sham spokesman Munzer Fares said they would go ahead nonetheless.

A member of a committee involved in the negotiations said 1,600 fighters and thousands of family members were expected to leave.

The AFP correspondent saw around 20 buses preparing to enter the town. Syrian and Russian soldiers waited on a dusty square outside.

- More talks -

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

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

The rebels and their families will be transported to the northwestern province of Idlib, which is held by a myriad of jihadist, Islamist and secular groups, many with links to Turkey.

The evacuation from Harasta will further isolate the rebel groups that control the other two pockets of Eastern Ghouta and pile pressure on them to accept similar deals.

Syrian Reconciliation Minister Ali Haidar told AFP that Ahrar al-Sham had negotiated with the Russian Centre for Reconciliation and Damascus was not directly involved.

Fighters in Harasta "were not able to impose a single one of their conditions," analyst Nawar Oliver said.

"Russia told them: this is what's on the table. If you like it, welcome. If you don't like it, we'll carry on with our ground offensive," he said.

Opposition figures in Ghouta said talks were under way for a deal to evacuate rebels from the enclave's main town Douma.

Douma is under control of the Jaish al-Islam group, while a southern pocket around the town of Zamalka is held by the Faylaq al-Rahman with a small jihadist presence.

Air strikes on Zamalka killed 16 civilians early on Thursday, the Observatory said.

Strikes on the nearby town of Arbin, also held by Faylaq al-Rahman killed another three civilians, it added.

An AFP reporter in Douma said hundreds of civilians were fleeing the town.

Similar evacuation deals have seen the government retake a string of onetime rebel bastions through Syria's seven-year civil war.

A May 2014 deal saw rebels pull out of third city Homs.

In December 2016, the army retook the whole of second city Aleppo as rebels withdrew in one of their worst defeats of the war.

Those agreements too followed devastating bombardments that took a heavy toll on trapped civilians.

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

On Wednesday, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Syria, Ali al-Zaatari, condemned the "tragic" living conditions of those displaced.

"People may have escaped fighting, fear and insecurity but they find themselves in a place without anywhere to wash themselves," he said.