Syrian rebels to evacuate Eastern Ghouta

Syrian rebels will be permitted to evacuate a town in Eastern Ghouta, the first time a deal has been agreed in the besieged enclave, according to opposition officials and Hezbollah media sources.

Fighters from Ahrar al-Sham, a coalition of Islamist groups which united to fight the Syrian regime, have agreed to lay down their arms in exchange for safe passage out of the town of Harasta.

Eastern Ghouta, an area near Damascus, has endured several weeks of heavy bombing by the Syrian regime and its allies. Volunteer organisation Syrian Civil Defence have reported that 1,252 civilians have been killed in the offensive.

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told the UN Security Council on Monday that the siege “has involved pervasive war crimes, the use of chemical weaponry, enforced starvation as a weapon of warfare, and the denial of essential and life-saving aid”.  The UN refugee agency spokesman, Andrej Mahecic, told a press conference in Geneva: “In Eastern Ghouta alone, more than 45,000 Syrians have fled their homes in recent days.”

A spokesperson for Ahrar al-Sham, Munther Fares, confirmed that the evacuation will begin at 7am today, while “families who want to stay [in Harasta] will be given guarantees by the Syrian government and the Russians that no harm will come to them”. Approximately 1,500 fighters and 6,000 of their family members will be transported to rebel-held Idlib province in two phases.

Eastern Ghouta’s pre-war population of 400,000 has significantly decreased since the start of the conflict. After the evacuation of Harasta, with 20,000 residents, rebel fighters still control two other areas of the enclave, including the major town of Douma, where 150,000 people live. The Harasta deal may increase the pressure on other rebel-held areas in Ghouta to reach evacuation agreements with the Syrian regime.