Syria rebels, civilians leave penultimate Ghouta pocket

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HARASTA (AFP) – Hundreds of Syrian rebels and civilians quit the penultimate opposition-held pocket of Eastern Ghouta on Saturday, bringing the government ever closer to sealing its victory over the battered enclave.

Eastern Ghouta was the opposition s final stronghold on the edge of Damascus, but beleaguered rebels are now left with less than 10 percent of their one-time bastion.

Since February 18, a Russian-backed air and ground assault has brought most of the area under government control, and Damascus is using evacuation deals to clear the last three pockets.

Talks are still ongoing for the final area around Ghouta s largest town of Douma, but negotiated withdrawals have already been reached to clear two other zones.

Fighters from the Islamist Faylaq al-Rahman faction were the latest to leave Eastern Ghouta, following in the wake of another hardline group that quit the town of Harasta last week.

A convoy of 17 buses carrying 981 people, including rebels and civilians, drove out the battered enclave late Saturday, according to state news agency SANA.

Syrian state television said the evacuees were from Zamalka, Arbin, Jobar, and Ain Tarma — all held by Faylaq al-Rahman — and would be bussed to Idlib in the northwest.

The withdrawals will continue Sunday, with a total of 7,000 people expected to be bussed out under the deal.

AFP s correspondent in nearby Harasta, which overlooks the meeting point for the convoy, saw more than a dozen buses gathering at the crossing over several hours.

Armed and masked Russian military personnel boarded each bus. Rebels were searched, then given food and drink by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent

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