More Syrian rebels exit stronghold near Damascus

April 3, 2018
This photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows Syrian government forces overseeing the evacuation by buses of Army of Islam fighters and their families from the besieged town of Douma, just east of Damascus, Syria, Monday, April 2, 2018. The most powerful Syrian rebel faction on the fringes of Damascus began abandoning its stronghold in the once rebel-held enclave of eastern Ghouta on Monday, opening the way for government forces to secure full control of the area, after seven years of revolt. (SANA via AP)

BEIRUT (AP) — A new group of Syrian rebels and their family members left their stronghold near Damascus on Tuesday, heading to the rebel-held north as part of an agreement with the Syrian government and its Russian backers.

State-run Syrian television broadcast footage that showed several buses leaving the town of Douma. It said those on board were fighters and family members belonging to the Army of Islam, the largest rebel group in eastern Ghouta.

The Saudi-backed group, which has deep roots in the region, has held firm in recent weeks as virtually all the other insurgents of eastern Ghouta have reached deals to relocate to the rebel-held north, leaving Douma as the only remaining rebel holdout.

The first Army of Islam fighters began evacuating Douma on Monday, headed to Jarablus, a northern Syrian town controlled by Turkish troops and allied Syrian forces. The rebels refused to say, however, whether they had surrendered.

It is also unclear whether all of the Army of Islam fighters have agreed to leave and how long the evacuations will take. The group is estimated to command 10,000 fighters in the town, and has a formidable arsenal of tanks and other heavy weaponry.

The head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdurrahman, said the Army of Islam is divided over whether to evacuate Douma, with hard-liners demanding they stay and fight.

The Russian military on Tuesday said 1,100 Syrian rebels and their family members have evacuated from Douma in two dozen buses in the past 24 hours.

The town of Douma was one of the earliest hubs of the uprising against President Bashar Assad in 2011.

The deal struck between the Army of Islam and the Russian military marks the end of a weekslong push by the Syrian government to consolidate its control of the suburbs.

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