Rebels, Civilians to Evacuate Damascus

Rebels, Civilians to Evacuate Damascus

DARAYA, Syria (AP) -- Buses, ambulances and trucks lined up at the entrance of a long-blockaded Damascus suburb on Friday to evacuate rebels and civilians under a deal struck between the Syrian opposition forces and the government.

The surrender of the Daraya suburb, which became an early symbol of the nascent uprising against President Bashar Assad, marks a success for his government, removing a persistent threat only a few miles from his seat of power.

Daraya's rebels agreed to evacuate in a deal late Thursday, after four years of grueling bombardment and a crippling siege that left the sprawling suburb in ruins. The suburb has been besieged and blockaded by government forces, with only one food delivery by the United Nations allowed to reach the district during this time.

The development comes as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Geneva on Friday for talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The talks center on proposals to share intelligence and coordinate militarily with Russia against the Islamic State group and al-Qaida in Syria and Iraq. Russia and Iran are strong backers of Assad and have been accused of targeting Western-backed rebel forces.

Located just southwest of Damascus, Daraya has been pummeled by government airstrikes, barrel bombs and fighting over the years.

The evacuations are to begin later Friday. At least 48 green and white buses, eight ambulances and several Red Crescent and U.N. vehicles were lined up at the entrance of Daraya, waiting for the green light.

An AP journalist who entered the suburb from its northern entrance saw a landscape of severely damaged and deserted buildings, some of them charred. A group of uniformed soldiers celebrated, shouting pro-Syria slogans and flashing victory signs.

Black smoke rose on the horizon — caused by the rebels burning their belongings before evacuating, according to Syrian army soldiers.

Footage posted on the internet by a member of the Daraya local council shows a small group of a few dozen people milling about in a street lined with destroyed buildings. Surrounded by some meager belongings, they appear to be waiting to be evacuated. Women in full face cover are seen sitting on pieces of rubble while bearded men walk about.

By midday Friday, three buses and several ambulances were seen entering Daraya, ahead of the evacuation.

Under the deal, the government is to allow safe exit to 700 gunmen and their families out of Daraya and let them head to the opposition-held northern province of Idlib. Around 4,000 civilians will be taken to a shelter in Kesweh, south of Daraya.

"Idlib will be their graveyard," said a Syrian army soldier. "This is a precious moment for every Syrian," he added. The soldiers spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Daraya, which lies in the western Ghouta region, has suffered thousands of helicopter-dropped unguided barrel bombs over the years.

It saw some of the first demonstrations against Assad after the uprising against his family rule began in March 2011, during which residents took to the streets, sometimes pictured carrying red and white roses to reflect the peaceful nature of their protests.

It is the latest rebel-held area to surrender to government troops following years of siege. Opposition activists and human rights groups accuse the government of using siege and starvation tactics to force surrender by the opposition.

The first major truce deal was struck in the Damascus suburb of Moadamiyeh, west of Daraya, in 2014. It was followed by truces and cease-fires in Babila, Yalda, Barzeh around the Syrian capital — all deals that swung heavily in the government' favor and pacified the region.

Daraya provided a stark example of the price of rebuffing truce overtures. For years, government helicopters conducted a brutal aerial campaign, pounding the suburb with barrel bombs — large containers packed with fuel, explosives and scraps of metal. The Syrian government denies using barrel bombs.

Last December, Syrian rebels evacuated the last district they controlled in the central city of Homs, a major symbol of the uprising, after a siege that lasted almost three years. Rebels there also headed to Idlib, handing the government a significant victory in central Syria.

The U.N.'s humanitarian chief Stephen O'Brien told the U.N. Security Council earlier this year that severe food shortages were forcing some people in Daraya to eat grass. Residents had described burning plastic material to make fuel.

Activist Hussam Ayash said residents were "trying to absorb the shock" of suddenly having to leave. "It's difficult, but we have no choice," he told The Associated Press, speaking from inside Daraya.

"Our condition has deteriorated to the point of being unbearable," he said on Thursday night, ahead of the evacuations. "We withstood for four years but we couldn't any longer," he said, choking on his words.

Ayash said the situation became unbearable after the town's remaining field hospital was bombed and destroyed last week. The government had in recent months also encroached on the town's agricultural farms — the only source of food for the local population, which he estimated at 8,000 people.

(KA)