Ghouta evacuees arrive in Syria's rebel-held Idlib: monitor


Beirut (AFP)

Hundreds of fighters evacuated by the Syrian regime from their Eastern Ghouta bastion arrived in rebel-held Idlib province on Friday, a monitor said.

Buses carrying the fighters and their families entered the northwestern province after their evacuation from the rebel-held town of Harasta in Eastern Ghouta on Thursday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

An AFP reporter at a camp for the displaced in the Maaret al-Ikhwan area in the north of Idlib province saw some of the evacuees arrive.

Families entered the camp but the fighters were not allowed in, he said.

Before dawn, some 400 fighters and hundreds of civilians on buses and ambulances had stopped in the town of Qalat al-Madiq in Hama province to the south, the Observatory said.

Among them was a man who had died of his injuries on the way, said the monitor, which relies on a wide network sources inside Syria for its information.

The AFP reporter saw hundreds of people on buses draw into Qalat al-Madiq, where rebel fighters and members of the Red Crescent and of the White Helmets civil defence organisation were waiting.

The evacuation from Harasta comes after pro-regime forces launched a blistering air and ground offensive on Eastern Ghouta, the last rebel bastion near Damascus, on February 18.

The assault has retaken 80 percent of the enclave, the Observatory says, and divided what remains into three shrinking pockets, each controlled by a different rebel group.

The evacuation of rebels from Harasta could empty the smallest of these pockets and pile pressure on those controlling the two other to accept similar deals.

Eastern Ghouta is within mortar range of central Damascus, and the evacuation deal could be a major first step in the regime's efforts towards securing the capital.

The one-month offensive on Eastern Ghouta has killed more than 1,500 civilians, the Observatory says, and caused tens of thousands to flee into government-held areas.

More than 350,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict since it broke out in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.