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Rebels ready to abandon bastion near Syrian capital

Bashar al-Assad (The Kremlin)

The last rebels standing in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta were preparing to leave Sunday, Syrian state-affiliated media reported, cementing a significant victory for the government of President Bashar Assad.

An agreement was reached with the Jaish al Islam rebel faction to leave Douma, a town of at least 100,000 people roughly 6 miles northeast of downtown Damascus and the last area in Ghouta still in rebel hands, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported Sunday.

The agreement, brokered under the stewardship of Russia, an Assad ally, called for the fighters to abandon their heavy weapons and go to the city of Jarablus on Syria’s northern border, which is controlled by Turkish-backed rebels.

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

Jaish al Islam did not confirm the report; Saudi news broadcaster Al Arabiya said that a hard-line faction within the rebel group had rejected all negotiations and was insisting on fighting “to the end.”

A defeat in the Ghouta would be a serious blow to an embattled opposition that lost its bastion in the northern city of Aleppo in late 2016. It would also secure Assad’s seat of power in Damascus, whose eastern neighborhoods had been the target of an almost daily barrage of mortars and rockets since the rebels overran Ghouta in late 2012.

In February, pro-government troops, backed by Russian air power, launched a campaign to retake the rebel-held enclave.

The observatory said more than 1,600 people were killed as artillery, shelling and airstrikes made way for a ground offensive in which Ghouta split into three separate pockets of rebel control.

In recent weeks, the government offered the now-standard deal it extended to the opposition in other besieged areas of the country, granting safe passage to those who refuse to disarm to to the rebel-held province of Idlib in the country’s northwest.

Tens of thousands of people have since been bused to Idlib, including fighters from Faylaq al Rahman and Ahrar al Sham, Islamist groups backed by Qatar and Turkey.

Reports of the deal came as the last of the Faylaq al Rahman fighters were leaving Douma.

Most of its fighters had already left as part of an evacuation deal for another rebel-held pocket overrun earlier this week. But the ones who left Sunday had been stranded in Douma during the fighting.

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© 2018 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.