State TV: 4 towns in Syria's Ghouta cleared of rebels - InfoNews

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State TV: 4 towns in Syria's Ghouta cleared of rebels

FILE - This Monday, March. 26, 2018 file photo provided by Danny Makki, a British-born Syrian journalist, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows a view of damaged buildings due to fighting and Syrian government airstrikes in the town of Harasta, in eastern Ghouta region east of Damascus, Syria. The Syrian army declared victory in eastern Ghouta Saturday, March 31, 2018, 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. (Danny Makki via AP)
March 31, 2018 - 11:43 AM

BEIRUT - Another group of opposition fighters and their relatives left southern parts of eastern Ghouta near the capital Damascus on Saturday afternoon bringing President Bashar Assad's forces a step closer to eliminating threats from insurgents groups nearby, state media said.

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. The channel said troops entered the towns and raised the national flag in Arbeen's main square.

Following Saturday's evacuation, the only area held by rebels east of the capital Damascus will be the town of Douma that is held by the powerful Army of Islam group. A crushing government offensive under the cover of Russian airstrikes that began on Feb. 18 has forced opposition fighters in most of eastern Ghouta to agree to evacuate and head to Idlib province.

"Arbeen, Zamalka, Jobar and Ein Tarma in eastern Ghouta are free of terrorists," shouted a correspondent for state-affiliated al-Ikhbariya TV channel from Arbeen.

State news agency SANA said 38,000 fighters and civilians have already headed to Idlib over the past two weeks marking one of the largest displacements since Syria's conflict began seven years ago. More than 100,000 others headed to government-controlled areas over the past weeks.

Before the last wave of violence began in eastern Ghouta last month, the U.N. had estimated that some 393,000 people were living in the area under a tight government siege.

Tens of thousands of rebels and civilians have been relocated to Idlib over the past years from different parts of Syria making it one of the most inhabited regions in the country.

The top U.N. official in Syria, Ali Al-Za'tari, told the Dubai-based al-Arabiya TV in an interview aired Saturday that "Idlib cannot take more people."

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that a vehicle carrying evacuees from eastern Ghouta had a road accident in the government-held village of Nahr al-Bared leaving five fighters and three civilians dead. It said the bus had left eastern Ghouta Friday night.

The departures Saturday from southern parts of eastern Ghouta comes as negotiations are still ongoing between Russian mediators and the Army of Islam officials to vacate Douma, but no deal has been reached so far with the rebel group insisting on staying in the town.

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

Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Observatory, said negotiations are now suggesting that thousands of Army of Islam members and their relatives could head to the northern town of Jarablous that is controlled by Turkish troops and Turkey-backed opposition fighters.

The Observatory has reported that Syrian troops have been massing troops around Douma in case negotiations collapse. The government has given an ultimatum for the group to agree on leaving Ghouta by Saturday night or face an all-out offensive.

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Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria contributed to this report.

News from © The Associated Press, 2018
The Associated Press

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