Syria's regime may retake one-time rebel enclave

A Syrian regime member walks amid the destruction in Jobar in Eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus

The Syrian army declared victory in eastern Ghouta Saturday after opposition fighters evacuated from most of the area near the capital except for the town of Douma where negotiations are still underway for rebels there to leave or face an all-out government offensive.

The government is waiting for the rebels to leave the besieged town of Douma, just east of Damascus, before it can say it has full control of the area, after seven years of revolt.

It was not clear if that was part of a broader deal including the pullout of fighters, though state television said information indicated that an agreement had been reached.

The departure of civilian authorities followed a Saturday morning meeting between several major civil society organizations and Jaish al-Islam leadership in Douma, in which the former requested that civilians be given the option to evacuate, pro-opposition news outlet al-Modon reported at the time.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition watchdog based in Britain, said the fighters' departure would be followed by the entry of Russian Federation military police, who would guarantee the safety of residents who want to remain in Douma.

Militants from the so-called Jaish al-Islam terror group leave Douma in the Eastern Ghouta enclave on the outskirts of the Syrian capital city of Damascus on April 2, 2018.

Indicating divisions in Jaish al-Islam, a Syrian military source told Reuters some of the fighters were rejecting the deal and the regime army would use force unless they accepted it.

State TV said 38 buses left the towns of Zamalka, Ein Tarma, Arbeen and Jobar taking more than 1,700 rebels and civilians to the northwestern rebel-held province of Idlib.

Since Feb. 19, more than 1,400 people have been killed in attacks by the regime and its allies in Eastern Ghouta, according to local civil-defense sources.

Army of Islam officials did not respond to requests for comment by The Associated Press.

The Syrian army statement said the fall of Eastern Ghouta will restore security in Damascus and to roads connecting it to central, northern and eastern Syria.

"We will stay in this town and will not leave".

Jaish al Islam counts around 10,000 fighters, according to SOHR.

Backed by Russia, Assad's forces have scored a series of victories over opposition forces in recent years, often through campaigns of siege, aerial bombardment and ground offensives that have drawn widespread worldwide condemnation.

Regime forces have already retaken more than 95% of Eastern Ghouta in a six-week air and ground blitz that has killed hundreds of civilians and forced tens of thousands from their homes.

State media say 41,000 people have also been evacuated to Idlib under deals between Ahrar al-Sham and Faylaq al-Rahman.

An old woman dressed head-to-toe in black stood by a pile of suitcases, with a child wearing a winter coat and colorful backpack by her side. At least 1,644 civilians, including 344 children, have been killed in the offensive that began on February 18 and reduced some neighborhoods to rubble, according to SOHR, which monitors the seven-year Syrian war through activists on the ground.

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