2,200 evacuate rebel-held Damascus district

 14 May 2017 - 20:16

2,200 evacuate rebel-held Damascus district
Syrian pro-government forces manoeuver a tank as they advance through Qabun district, on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on May 13, 2017, during an offensive to retake the area from opposition fighters. / AFP / STRINGER

AFP

Damascus: More than 2,200 civilians and rebels evacuated an opposition district in Damascus on Sunday, state media said, bringing the government closer to cementing its control over the Syrian capital.

The evacuations from the Qabun district in northeast Damascus follow similar departures from the Barzeh and Tishrin neighbourhoods earlier this week.

"The first phase of the agreement in the Qabun district has been completed with the evacuation of 2,289 people, including 1,058 armed men," Damascus governor Beshr Assaban was quoted as saying by the official SANA news agency.

He said the aim of the evacuation was to "end the presence of armed forces in the neighbourhood".

An AFP correspondent inside Qabun saw around a dozen white buses carrying out residents and fighters, after a deal for the neighbourhood was announced late Saturday following heavy fighting.

At the edge of the district, two women embraced and wept as they faced the prospect of parting ways.

Suad, 22, was leaving behind her friend Mona, also 22, to follow her family to Idlib province, a rebel-held area in northwest Syria.

"I didn't want to leave, but I have to stay with my family, and they prefer to go to Idlib after my uncle left with the group from Barzeh," said Suad. 

"I never thought one day I'd be in this position," she added, sobbing heavily. 

"I can't describe how I feel."

Those evacuating carried small bags with them as they boarded the buses, while others who had decided to stay registered their names at a military post.

Rubble and tunnels

The evacuation deal came on Saturday night after government forces advanced inside the neighbourhood.

"The Syrian army yesterday managed to encircle dozens of armed elements inside Qabun neighbourhood, forcing them to surrender and hand over their weapons," a source from the pro-regime National Defence Forces militia told AFP.

The signs of the recent fighting, as well as years of prior bombardment and clashes, were visible all around with rubble from partly and completely destroyed buildings strewn across the roads.

Tanks sent up clouds of dust as they manoeuvred over mounds of debris, and dirt and black smoke rose from fires still burning in the neighbourhood.

"A few days ago we couldn't be here. The road was too dangerous," said one soldier.

Others showed off a tunnel they had discovered, one of many that rebels used to connect besieged neighbourhoods.

"This tunnel is ten metres (more than 30 feet) deep, and connects Qabun with the town of Arbin" in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, one soldier said.

"It was used by militants to smuggle weapons and food."

He said another tunnel had been discovered between the Barzeh and Qabun neighbourhoods and destroyed on Saturday.

"It was the width of two cars."

Evacuation deals 

A lieutenant, who declined to give his name, said the capture of Qabun had been months in the making.

"This battle lasted for 15 days but we have been planning it for six months," he said.

"We would not have been able to succeed without controlling the network of tunnels. We found more than 10 tunnels so far, and there are still more."

The deals for Qabun, Barzeh and Tishrin neighbourhoods follow a pattern of agreements under which the rebels agree to surrender in exchange for safe passage to opposition-held territory elsewhere.

The government says the deals are the best way to end the six-year war, but the opposition says it is forced into the agreements by regime bombardment and siege.

Two groups of evacuees left Barzeh neighbourhood this week, with one leaving from Tishrin.

All three headed to Idlib province.

Damascus has been insulated from some of the worst violence of Syria's war, which has killed more than 320,000 people since it began with anti-government protests in March 2011.

But the government has made securing control of the last remaining rebel districts in the capital a key priority.

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