Hundreds prepare to exit rebel areas near Damascus: state media

Damascus (AFP) –


Hundreds of rebels and civilians prepared to leave Thursday from three districts south of Syria's capital, state media said, under a negotiated withdrawal to secure the last opposition holdouts of Damascus.

The departures come two days after a similar deal was reached to evacuate fighters once linked to Al-Qaeda from Yarmuk, a Palestinian camp in southern Damascus.

Syrian state news agency SANA reported on Thursday that empty buses were entering the towns of Babila, Yalda and Beit Saham, to be filled up with rebels and civilians who would head to opposition-held parts of northern Syria.

"Around 5,000 terrorists and their families are expected to leave, fulfilling an agreement reached on Sunday between the Syrian government and terrorist groups," the agency said.

It did not specify which rebel factions were among the evacuees, but Syria's government refers to all armed opponents as "terrorists."

The deal was reached after "negotiations between figures from the three towns on one side, and Russia and the regime on the other," according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor.

Those rebels who wanted to leave for the north could do so, and those who wanted to stay would abandon their weapons and have their status with the Syrian state regularised.

Beit Saham, Yalda, and Babila had for several years fallen under a "reconciliation" agreement with the Syrian state, meaning they remained in rebel hands but a local ceasefire was enforced.

But after capturing the Eastern Ghouta rebel stronghold outside Damascus last month, regime forces have sought to secure the entirety of the capital and its surroundings with a blend of military operations and negotiated withdrawals.

They first seized control of other "reconciled" towns east of Damascus, then began a military operation against Yarmuk.

The camp was mostly held by the Islamic State group but also had a small presence of fighters from Al-Qaeda's former Syrian affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).

Under military pressure, HTS fighters agreed to quit Yarmuk with their families earlier this week. HTS said late Wednesday the deal saw 141 of its fighters reach northern Syria.

In exchange, it said, 18 wounded people and their relatives were allowed to leave a pair of regime-controlled villages besieged by hardline rebels in northwest Syria.

That deal is still expected to see some 5,000 people leave the two villages, Fuaa and Kafraya, according to SANA.