Ghouta rebels agree to evacuate Nusra forces

REUTERS  Omar Sanadiki

Syrian state television had earlier reported that army operations were intensifying in the central part of eastern Ghouta three weeks into the government's ferocious assault. The most built-up and densely populated areas still under rebel control include the towns of Douma, Harasta, Jisreen, Kfar Batna, Saqba and Hammouriyeh.

Around 400,000 people are thought to still live in the area.

A picture from Syrian state TV showing unidentified "fighters", evacuated from Eastern Ghouta.

President Bashar al-Assad and Russian Federation say the campaign is needed to end rebel rule over the area's civilians.

The offensive follows the pattern of previous assaults on rebel strongholds, deploying air power and tight sieges to force insurgents to accept "evacuation" deals.

These involve rebels surrendering territory in exchange for safe passage to opposition areas in northwest Syria, along with their families and other civilians who do not want to come back under Assad's rule.

An aid convoy crossed into the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus on Friday, delivering desperately needed aid despite heavy fighting that broke out near the convoy and renewed airstrikes by the Syrian government.

Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said talks were underway between government representatives and local figures to organise the evacuation of civilians or fighters from parts of the enclave.

Mohammad Alloush, the political chief of Jaish al-Islam, told pan-Arab television channel Al-Arabiya al-Hadath Friday that the number of Nusra militants in Eastern Ghouta does not exceed "a few hundred".

For President Bashar al-Assad, the capture of Ghouta would mark a major victory as he builds on the military momentum created by Russia's 2015 entry into the war, which has restored his rule over swathes of Syria.

The intensity of the assault has drawn global condemnation and demands by United Nations agencies for a humanitarian halt in the fighting.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said on Saturday that government forces had captured the town of Mesraba, which lies 10km east of Damascus, and had begun advancing into its surrounding farms.

However, the terror of the bombardment and the desperate living conditions are taking their toll and may push people to fearless the fighting and flee.

In the Eastern Ghouta region, 46 trucks arrived on Monday with aid for the needy populations, however, the delivery of the products had to be suspended due to heavily armed attacks by extremist groups against the caravan. After the convoy entered during a brief lull, the bombardment and fighting resumed.

Western powers, however, blame the Syrian government and Russian Federation for the crisis.

The World Health Organization said it has verified 67 hits on medical facilities in Syria through January and February, almost half of them in Eastern Ghouta.

Eastern Ghouta is so close to Damascus that it is possible for rebels to fire mortars into the heart of the capital, which has led to scores of civilian deaths.


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