Thousands more rebels, civilians reach northwest Syria


Qalaat al-Madiq (Syria) (AFP)

Thousands of Syrian rebels and civilians arrived in opposition territory on Wednesday after having evacuated their Eastern Ghouta enclave near Damascus, an AFP correspondent said.

Buses carrying opposition fighters, their relatives, and other civilians began arriving at a transit point in northwestern Syria around dawn, after travelling all night from Ghouta.

Aid groups could be seen handing out toys, milk, and juice to children descending from the buses.

The convoy that left a battered pocket of Ghouta late Tuesday comprised 101 buses carrying 6,432 people, according to state news agency SANA.

They left under an evacuation deal between the Islamist rebel faction Faylaq al-Rahman, which controls a part of Ghouta, and Russia, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Moscow has negotiated two such agreements to empty the last rebel holdouts in Eastern Ghouta, once the opposition's strategic perch on the edge of the capital.

The negotiations come after a ferocious Syrian army offensive that overran vast swathes of Ghouta, already suffering a crippling half-decade siege.

The agreement with Faylaq al-Rahman was announced on Friday and implementation began the following day.

So far, more than 19,000 people, including rebels and civilians, have been bused out of the part of Ghouta they control.

Faylaq al-Rahman spokesman Wael Alwan said the operation could see as many as 30,000 ultimately leave the enclave.

According to Syrian state media, hundreds more people were boarding buses in the Faylaq-held pocket of Ghouta on Wednesday for new evacuations.

It said more than 128,000 people had fled Ghouta in recent weeks, many of them through routes into government-held territory that were opened by advancing government troops.