Activists: Hours before cease-fire, 37 killed in Syrian town

Syrian government forces oversee the evacuation by buses of rebel fighters and their families, at a checkpoint in eastern Ghouta, Syria. (SANA via AP)
Syrian government forces oversee the evacuation by buses of rebel fighters and their families, at a checkpoint in eastern Ghouta, Syria. (SANA via AP)

Beirut – Airstrikes killed at least 37 people in a Syrian town in the eastern Ghouta region near the Syrian capital, Damascus, as another rebel group called for a cease-fire to negotiate evacuations with the government and its backer Russia, rescuers and a rebel spokesperson said on Friday.

The rebel group Faylaq al-Rahman, one of at least three operating in the sprawling region, said the cease-fire went into effect by midnight on Thursday. Spokesperson Waiel Olwan said intense government attacks targeted the area controlled by his group amid a ground push.

Rescuers, known as White Helmets, said all 37 people died in a single airstrike that hit an underground shelter in Arbeen. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported the attacks and said government troops advanced in Hazeh south of Arbeen.

Olwan said his group has reached out to the United Nations to negotiate the cease-fire amid the government escalation. Negotiations with Russia will follow to allow for the evacuation of civilians from the area, he said.

"We expect these negotiations to find a solution and a way out in the face of widespread suffering in eastern Ghouta," Olwan added.

A similar deal with another rebel group, Ahrar al-Sham, led to the evacuation of hundreds of fighters and civilians from Harasta, an eastern Ghouta town in the north.

The Russian Defence Ministry said in a statement on Friday that 1 895 rebels and their family members left the town of Harasta on Thursday.

They headed to the northwestern Idlib province, one of a few remaining areas in the hands of the opposition.

Evacuation

Syrian state-run Al-Ikhbariya broadcast from the crossing area from Harasta on Friday, saying that 10 buses have arrived to continue the evacuation.

The evacuation deal was an effective surrender after a long siege and bombing campaign of the enclave just kilometres outside of Damascus. Rebels had controlled eastern Ghouta since 2012, keeping the farming area a thorn in the seat of the government during the years of conflict. The government imposed a siege on the area shortly after rebels controlled it, but failed to recapture eastern Ghouta.

In February, a concerted military offensive, backed by Russian airstrikes, squeezed the rebels and civilians in the area under an intense bombing campaign and tightened the siege. The UN estimated that nearly 400 000 people remained in the enclave before the latest offensive began.

The government assault sparked a tide of people trying to escape the violence in the Damascus suburbs. Some have moved deeper into the rebel-held enclave, while about 50 000 others have crossed the front lines toward government-controlled areas.

Over the last weeks, ground troops have cut the enclave into three areas, isolating them and keeping up the bombing.

On Friday, Syrian state media said more residents have left from Douma, one of the three pockets isolated by the offensive and where the bombing continues, through a crossing linking it to the capital Damascsus. No cease-fire has been reached in Douma, the largest town in eastern Ghouta. Douma is controlled by the Army of Islam, the largest and most powerful rebel group in the region.

The surrender deal with Ahrar al-Sham in Harasta is likely to serve as a blueprint for the talks with Faylaq al-Rahman rebels.

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