Syrian rebels agree to leave new area outside Damascus
DAMASCUS - Rebels were expected to leave a new area outside the Syrian capital Saturday, state media said, after a new deal was reached between opposition fighters and the Russia-backed regime.
The agreement is the latest in a string of deals that have seen opposition fighters and civilians bussed out of former opposition strongholds near Damascus.
"An agreement has been reached in the area of Eastern Qalamun providing for terrorists to exit Al-Ruhayba, Jayrud and Al-Nasiriya starting from" Saturday, state news agency SANA said late Friday, using its usual term for rebels.
The town of Al-Ruhayba lies some 60 kilometres (35 miles) northeast of Damascus.
Under the deal, fighters would hand over heavy and medium-size weapons as well as ammunition depositories, before heading to northern Syria, SANA said.
They would be transferred to the rebel-held northern town of Jarabulus in Aleppo province and to the neighbouring province of Idlib, which is the last in Syria to remain largely outside regime control.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor relying on sources inside Syria, said buses had entered the East Qalamun area after the deal was reached between the rebels and the Russia-backed regime.
The regime is pushing to secure the capital after it announced its full reconquest last week of what was the last major rebel bastion outside Damascus.
Eastern Ghouta was emptied of rebels after a nearly two-month deadly assault on the enclave and several Russia-brokered deals that saw tens of thousands of people transported on buses to Syria's north.
Earlier this week, a deal was inked that saw around 5,000 people including 1,500 fighters exit Dumayr, a town just to the south of Al-Ruhayba.
After retaking Eastern Ghouta, the regime has also turned its sights on the southern districts of the capital where the Islamic State jihadist group has a presence.
Regime forces have bombarded the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp on the southern edge of Damascus in recent days in a bid to dislodge IS fighters.
Heavy regime bombardment continued to pound the southern district on Saturday, state media and a monitor said, as government forces pressed their campaign against the jihadists entrenched in the area.
IS still holds large parts of Yarmouk and the adjacent Hajar al-Aswad and Tadamun districts on the southern edge of Damascus.
Since Thursday, regime forces have been shelling them heavily in a bid to pressure IS fighters to withdraw.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said six civilians have since been killed.
"There are clashes and intense air strikes today, but no strategic advance on the ground," Abdel Rahman said.
Syrian media said government forces were targeting IS supply lines and had destroyed weapons depots in the area.
A reporter contributing to AFP from inside Yarmuk said there was steady shelling throughout the day on Saturday, with the booms of air strikes reverberating across the district.
Residents were hiding in the basements or ground floors of their modest cinderblock homes, too afraid to go outside.
Syrian warplanes and helicopter gunships could be seen flying above the camp, as billowing masses of thick grey smoke emerged from the skyline.
Once a thriving district home to some 160,000 Syrians and Palestinians, Yarmuk has been devastated by more than five years of clashes and a crippling government siege.
Thousands have fled over the years as the humanitarian situation has grown more dire.
IS overran most of Yarmuk in 2015 and Al-Qaeda's former Syrian affiliate maintained a small presence in Yarmuk until it withdrew a few weeks ago.
Another small pocket is controlled by the regime and allied Palestinian fighters.
IS overran large swathes of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in 2014, but has since lost most of that territory to several offensives.
Syria's conflict has killed 350,000 people and displaced millions more since it broke out in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.