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Syria rebels give up Ghouta in major win for regime

  • Published at 10:43 pm April 12th, 2018
Syria rebels give up Ghouta in major win for regime

Rebels in Syria's Eastern Ghouta surrendered their heavy weapons and their leader left the enclave, a monitor said Thursday, signalling the end of one of the bloodiest assaults of Syria's seven-year war.

The Syrian flag was raised above the central mosque in Douma, the town where the regime is accused of carrying out a chemical attack that sparked outrage and threats of Western military action.

Jaish al-Islam, which has controlled Eastern Ghouta's main town for years, had balked at a Russian-brokered deal like those that saw other factions bussed to northern Syria.

The group's political chief told AFP it was a chemical attack by the regime that forced them to accept Russia's terms and evacuate their former bastion.

"Of course, the chemical attack is what pushed us to agree" to a withdrawal from Douma, said Yasser Dalwan.

Syrian regime forces had yet to take over Douma Thursday but, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the rebels handed over their heavy weapons.

"Jaish al-Islam fighters handed over their heavy weapons to Russian military police in the town of Douma on Wednesday," the Britain-based monitoring group said.

Their top leader Issam Buwaydani boarded a convoy out of Ghouta with thousands of other fighters and their relatives, it said.

"Not all the leadership has left yet. Departures are ongoing," Dalwan said.

Assad recovery

Moscow also said Russian military police had returned to the town on Thursday and were in full control.

"From today, units of the Russian armed forces' military police are working in the town of Douma," the defence ministry said.

Yet chaos and confusion prevailed in the streets of Douma, where civilians appeared to have very little information on the latest political developments.

Many residents were preparing to take what should be some of the last buses leaving the region to head to parts of northern Syria still under rebel control.

"Eighty buses will be evacuated today. Seventeen of them are already at the gathering point, waiting for the rest of the convoy," a Syrian military source said on condition of anonymity.

The official said the rebels had burned tanks they had been expected to hand over before leaving.

According to the Russian military, more than 160,000 people have been evacuated from Eastern Ghouta, which only two months ago was a sprawling rebel enclave within mortar range of central Damascus.

The government of President Bashar al-Assad, which since Russia's military intervention in 2015 has gradually reasserted what was once a very tenuous grip on the country, was keen to secure an area that directly threatened the capital.

"Victory in Ghouta is a critical point," Bouthaina Shaaban, a top Assad adviser, said on the Lebanese channel Al-Mayadeen.

"It has sent a message to the whole world that Syria's army and its allies can liberate every inch of Syrian territory," she said.

The Syrian pound has risen significantly as the operation to flush rebels out of Ghouta wrapped up.

Regime and allied forces are next expected to train their sights on areas in southern Damascus that are almost empty of civilians but still controlled by the Islamic State jihadist group (IS).

According to the Observatory, more than 350,000 people have been killed in seven years of conflict, including a proportion of children that has risen sharply over the past year.

While the scramble for Syria that followed the collapse of IS's self-styled "caliphate" last year is winding down in some parts of Syria, the humanitarian emergency is still acute.

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, 2.9 million people were forced from their homes last year, or nearly 8,000 people every day.

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