Syria's army vows to finish off last rebels outside Damascus


Damascus (AFP)

Syria's army promised Saturday to finish off fighters in the final opposition holdout of devastated Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus after a penultimate pocket was declared "empty" of rebels.

Russia-backed regime forces have recaptured the vast majority of the enclave through the combination of a deadly air and ground assault and evacuation deals.

After a six-week blitz the only remaining scrap of rebel-held territory includes the main town of Douma, but Moscow-brokered talks over a possible evacuation have stalled as the group controlling it pledges to stay put.

Syria's army vowed it would now press on with "fighting in the area of Douma to rid it of terrorism", using the term it usually uses to refer to rebels.

The announcement came shortly after state news agency SANA reported another rebel area was "empty of terrorism" as the last buses carrying rebels and civilians left it on Saturday afternoon as part of a deal to withdraw.

More than 41,000 people in total have been bussed out of the southern pocket held by the Faylaq al-Rahman rebel group in over a week under the Russian-supervised agreement, according to a tally of state media figures.

"It's a strategic victory against terror and a turning point" in the battle for Eastern Ghouta, an army officer told state television as soldiers around him celebrated.

As of Saturday, regime forces supported by their Russian allies had retaken 95 percent of Eastern Ghouta, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

- Refusal to leave -

The assault on Ghouta has killed more than 1,600 civilians since February 18 and seen tens of thousands more flee the fighting into regime-held areas, the Britain-based monitor says.

Troops have pursued a divide-and-conquer strategy, seizing most of the enclave then breaking up what was left of it into three isolated pockets.

When the rebels were weakened Moscow stepped in and swiftly announced two withdrawal agreements with rebels.

Last week, more than 4,500 people left a first pocket including the town of Harasta previously held by the Ahrar al-Sham rebel group.

In total, more than 45,500 people have left Eastern Ghouta under evacuation deals from the two first pockets.

But in Douma, the Jaish al-Islam rebel group has said they will not leave.

On Friday, Russia's defence ministry said it had brokered a deal that would see rebels abandon Douma "shortly", but the fighters there quickly denied it.

Jaish al-Islam's spokesman Hamza Bayraqdar said the group categorically refused "leaving or being displaced".

Tens of thousands of people are believed to live in the area, where residents have expressed worry about their fate.

- 'Beating heart of the rebellion' -

Jaish al-Islam had been in talks with Russia to reach a settlement whereby they could stay.

But negotiations faltered over the group's demands of a general amnesty and unrestricted movement for Douma residents across the country, a source with knowledge of the talks told AFP.

Moscow threatened Jaish al-Islam with a renewed assault on the town if they did not agree to withdraw, and Syrian troops have amassed around the holdout.

With the offensive on Eastern Ghouta, President Bashar al-Assad has sought to secure his capital Damascus, which was within mortar range of the rebel enclave.

Last week, a rebel rocket attack on the capital killed 44 civilians.

Assad's forces retaking Eastern Ghouta would be a considerable victory in Syria's seven-year war, which has killed more than 350,000 people and displaced millions.

Syria's civil war started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.

Eastern Ghouta is the "beating heart of the rebellion near Assad's capital," said analyst Nick Heras, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

"When Assad stops that heart from beating, he eliminates the greatest threat to his rule in Damascus."