Fresh rebel withdrawals from Syria's shrinking Ghouta

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Douma (Syria) (AFP)

A new group of Syrian rebels and civilians prepared to leave Eastern Ghouta on Monday after the largest exodus yet from the opposition enclave, as talks stalled over the final pocket of resistance.

Five weeks since government troops launched a ferocious offensive on Ghouta, they hold more than 90 percent of the long-besieged opposition stronghold on the doorstep of Damascus.

The area has been ravaged by heavy bombardment and emptied by a mass exodus of tens of thousands of residents and negotiated withdrawals of rebel fighters.

Late Sunday, more than 5,400 rebels, their relatives and other civilians were bussed out of a pocket of territory held by Islamist rebel group Faylaq al-Rahman, state media reported.

It was the single largest one-day evacuation yet from Eastern Ghouta, after nearly 1,000 people were bussed out from the same areas on Saturday.

More pull-outs were expected Monday from the towns of Arbin and Zamalka and the neighbouring district of Jobar, all held by Faylaq al-Rahman.

The group's spokesman Wael Alwan on Monday confirmed that "the evacuations are continuing today", but could not provide detailed numbers.

State news agency SANA said 10 buses were ready on Monday to take around 600 people including fighters and more than 200 children out of areas controlled by the Islamist rebel group.

The departures are part of a deal reached with the rebel group last week.

The government has repeatedly used such "reconciliation deals" to recapture territory lost to rebels during Syria's seven-year war.

Eastern Ghouta lies within mortar range of Damascus, and rebels there had threatened to seize the capital from President Bashar al-Assad.

- Mass exodus -

The regime responded by imposing a crippling half-decade siege on the suburb's 400,000 residents, sealing off their access to food, medicine and other goods.

On February 18, the regime, its ally Russia and loyalist militia launched an all-out assault, using air strikes and a sweeping ground assault to corner rebels in three isolated pockets.

More than 1,600 civilians have been killed in the operation, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

To help the regime capture the rest, Moscow began talks with the rebel groups in each area.

The first deal, with hardline Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, saw more than 4,500 people including rebels leave the town of Harasta last week.

They left by bus to the northwestern province of Idlib, which is held by an array of Islamist, jihadist and other rebel groups.

The deal with Faylaq al-Rahman on Friday has so far seen 6,400 people leave the pocket it controls.

The vast convoy of 81 buses that left on Sunday night has put the government within reach of securing the second-last part of the former rebel stronghold.

A third set of talks is ongoing over the final pocket, controlled by Jaish al-Islam and including the largest town in the area, Douma.

But unlike the other zones, a Douma deal could see Jaish al-Islam remain in the town.

"The ongoing negotiations with Russia are to stay in Douma, not to leave it," said Jaish al-Islam spokesman Hamza Bayraqdar, without providing further details.

- Dilemmas in Douma -

Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said the deal could see Jaish al-Islam lay down its heavy weapons in exchange for the return of government-provided water and electricity to the town.

Russian military police would deploy in the area but Syria's army would not have a presence, he said.

But internal divisions within opposition ranks were holding up the talks, Abdel Rahman told AFP.

"Jaish al-Islam's commanders are divided and some are opposed to a deal," he told AFP.

Similar terms were reported by Syria's pro-government Al-Watan daily.

It said a "preliminary understanding" had been reached over Ghouta that would see the "dissolution of Jaish al-Islam, the handover of its heavy weapons and the return of state institutions to the city."

Al-Watan said the two parties had given themselves three days to study the deal.

In Douma, residents were torn over what to do.

"I've spent my whole live here and lived the revolution. My father died here. How could I abandon his grave?" said Abu Ayman, 30.

"But I could never live alongside regime forces," he added.

Some had already left by foot or motorcycle into government-held zones, using a corridor opened up by regime troops.

More than 15,000 people have fled Douma using such a route in recent days, according to the Observatory.

"I'm leaving because I'm sick, weak, because there are shortages and hunger," said Fayiz Alie Thaljah, 53, as he left.

"We used to eat every three days. We couldn't cook -- Douma was empty."