Rebels, civilians to evacuate Syria's Daraya under deal
DARAYA, Syria - Agence France-Presse
A Syrian Arab Red Crescent convoy waits next to debris at the entrance of the besieged Damascus suburb of Daraya, before rebels and residents start being evacuated under an agreement reached on Thursday between rebels and Syria's army, August 26, 2016. REUTERS photoAmbulances and Red Crescent vehicles entered Syria's besieged town of Daraya as thousands of rebels and civilians prepared to evacuate on Aug. 26 ahead of its takeover by government forces.
It was unclear exactly when residents and fighters would start leaving the devastated town near the capital Damascus that has been under rebel control since 2012.
An estimated 8,000 people remain in the town, despite a government siege lasting four years and regular regime bombardment.
Daraya is located just 15 minutes drive from Damascus and is even closer to the government's Mazzeh air base.
On Aug. 25, Syrian state news agency SANA announced a deal had been struck for the evacuation of civilians and fighters in the town.
The agreement is seen as a major defeat for the opposition and has provoked anger among its supporters.
"Seven hundred armed men with their personal weapons will leave Daraya to head to the (rebel-controlled) city of Idlib, while thousands of men and women with their families will be taken to reception centres," SANA said.
The rebels would have to surrender other armaments to the army. The rebels who control the town belong to two Islamist groups: Ajnad al-Sham and the Martyrs of Islam. A Syrian source on the ground said Thursday that the evacuation could take four days to complete.
A military source told AFP the army would enter Daraya, which was one of the first towns in Syria to erupt in anti-government protests in March 2011.
"The civilians will go to regions under regime control around Damascus, rebels will go to Idlib "or sort out their situation with the regime", a rebel official told AFP.
Most of Idlib province, in northwest Syria, is held by the powerful Army of Conquest rebel alliance.
Only one humanitarian food aid convoy has entered Daraya since government forces began their siege of the town in late 2012.
The aid convoy delivered by the Red Crescent entered Daraya in June, and contained enough food for a month, officials said.
A UN aid convoy carrying medicine but no food had entered Daraya earlier the same month.
The arrival of the food aid was followed by heavy regime bombardment that residents said stalled distribution.
The bombardment was heavily criticised by the West, including France, which accused Damascus of "extraordinary duplicity".
According to the United Nations, nearly 600,000 live under siege across Syria, most surrounded by government forces, although rebels and Islamists also use the tactic.
In several places, lengthy government sieges have prompted rebels to agree evacuation deals with the regime, prompting activists to accuse Damascus of using "starve or surrender" tactics.