Mon, May 15, 2017 - Page 5 News List

Army takes most of Damascus district

THIRD DEAL:Following a heavy siege by the Syrian army, rebels in Qaboun District on Saturday agreed to exchange the district for safe passage to rebel-held Idlib Province

AFP and Reuters, DAMASCUS and AMMAN

Civilians and rebels yesterday began evacuating a third opposition-held district of Damascus, bringing the Syrian government closer to cementing its control over the capital.

An AFP correspondent inside Qaboun saw about 10 buses carrying residents and fighters out of the area in the morning following the deal for the neighborhood was announced late on Saturday following heavy fighting.

About 1,500 fighters and their families are now trapped in a nearly 1km2 zone.

The agreement mirrors those implemented last week in the nearby rebel-held districts of Barzeh and Tishrin under which the rebels agree to surrender in exchange for safe passage to opposition-held territory in Idlib Province.

The government says the deals are the best way to end the six-year war, but the opposition says it is forced into the agreements by regime bombardment and siege.

The UN has also criticized both the use of siege tactics which precede such deals and the evacuations themselves as amounting to forcible displacement.

“The regime has threatened to destroy what is left of Qaboun and will not accept anything but a military solution,” Abdullah al Qabouni from the district’s local council said.

Damascus has been insulated from some of the worst violence of Syria’s war, which has killed more than 320,000 people since it began with anti-government protests in March 2011.

The government has made securing control of the last rebel districts in the capital a key priority.

The loss of Qaboun is a another blow to rebels battling to keep a foothold in the capital and facing government troops who are backed by Russian air power and Iranian-backed militias.

The Sunni rebels accuse the government of seeking to evict Sunni inhabitants in these areas in demographic changes they say would eventually pave the way for Iranian-backed Shiites who back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule to take over their homes, a claim the authorities deny.

Army advances were made possible after tunnels between Qaboun and Barzeh were cut and the army isolated the areas from the rest of the main rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta.

The tightening of the siege in the two districts, where tens of thousands of people lived, forced the hands of rebels to eventually agree to deals worked out elsewhere that force them to pull back to northern Syria.

“They besieged us and even medicines for children or any supplies were no longer left ... people died of hunger,” said Ahmad Khatib, who was among those who left on Friday.

The densely populated rural Eastern Ghouta district of farms and towns has been besieged since 2013. It remains the only major rebel bastion near Damascus and the fall of Qaboun and Barzeh have removed a main line of defense that protected it, rebels say.

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