Syrians quit Ghouta as talks for last pocket stutter
Hundreds more Syrian rebels and civilians prepared on March 30 to leave Eastern Ghouta under a negotiated withdrawal, as Russia unilaterally announced a similar deal to empty the final pocket of the battered enclave.
The former rebel bastion on the outskirts of Damascus has been drained by a nearly six-week Syrian government assault and a pair of evacuation deals brokered by regime ally Moscow.
Under such agreements, rebels agree to hand over territory in exchange for safe passage for them and civilians to opposition zones in northwest Syria.
More than 36,000 people have already been bussed out of the enclave, and fresh evacuations were under way on Friday.
Around 1,000 people, a quarter of them fighters, were boarding buses in a pocket of Ghouta held by the Faylaq al-Rahman rebel faction, according to Syrian state media.
That agreement, reached last week, left the overpopulated, devastated town of Douma as the final rebel holdout in the region.
Russia’s defense ministry said on March 30 that it had brokered a deal that would see rebels abandon Douma “shortly,” but the fighters there quickly denied it.
“We categorically refuse leaving or being displaced,” said Jaish al-Islam’s spokesman Hamza Bayraqdar.
“That’s an essential demand of the negotiations. We have not reached an agreement yet,” he told AFP, adding that talks were ongoing.
Eastern Ghouta was the armed opposition’s last stronghold around Damascus, which groups regularly targeted with rockets and mortar rounds.