Russia kills 37 civilians in Ghouta’s Arbeen

Beirut: Russian air strikes killed 37 civilians in the Arbeen area of the shrinking rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta near Damascus overnight, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Friday.

“Russian air strikes and incendiary weapons killed the civilians in a basement from burning or suffocation” late on Thursday before a ceasefire came into effect in the area, Observatory head Rami Abdul Rahman said.

Russia has denied being directly involved in air strikes on Eastern Ghouta. The Britain-based Observatory says it relies on flight patterns, aircraft involved and ammunition used to determine who carries them out.

In violence elsewhere, an air strike on a market in the village of Harem in northwestern Syria killed at least 28 people, according to observers and the opposition’s Civil Defence group.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the dead included 11 children and women, and the overall death toll could still rise since many others were critically wounded.

Meanwhile, carrying their light arms, hundreds of defeated rebels began evacuating with their families Thursday from a devastated town in eastern Ghouta, an effective surrender under a deal with the regime after a long siege and bombing campaign of the enclave on the outskirts of Damascus.

The departure of the powerful Ahrar Al Sham group — the first such arrangement for eastern Ghouta — could serve as a blueprint for fighters in other towns, bringing Bashar Al Assad’s regime closer to ending years of rebellion in the territory just east of the capital.

As night fell, Syrian regime TV showed dozens of white buses carrying opposition fighters and civilians pulling out in a long convoy after being parked all day on a main highway. Among the 1,580 evacuees from the town of Harasta were 413 gunmen, it said.

Earlier, a few fighters with automatic rifles slung on their shoulders were seen milling around the buses. As the sun set, a group of rebels knelt on the Harasta highway and prayed.

Ahrar Al Sham is a powerful, ultra-conservative Islamic group in Syria. It is one of the smaller rebel groups based in eastern Ghouta — and the first to acknowledge defeat. Under the agreement with the Al Assad regime, the group’s fighters and their relatives will leave their base in the town of Harasta and head to opposition-controlled Idlib in northern Syria.

The deal will see 1,500 rebels and 6,000 civilians depart, according to the regime-affiliated Military Media Centre.

The convoy of buses from Harasta, their headlights blazing, was reminiscent of those ferrying defeated rebels out of eastern Aleppo in late 2016, following a similar agreement with the regime.

“They are leaving toward Idlib with no return,” said Rabieh Dibeh, correspondent for regime-affiliated Al Ikhbariya TV, when the buses started moving.

The deal is modelled on others that have had rebels surrender swaths of territory around the capital and other major cities to the regime. In all cases, the arrangements followed indiscriminate bombing campaigns against hospitals, markets and other civilian targets, driving thousands from their homes.

As Ahrar Al Sham rebels prepared to leave Harasta, thousands of civilians streamed out of other areas in eastern Ghouta that were still being bombed by the regime.

Dozens of the civilians appeared to be wounded, some hobbling on crutches, another with an eye injury. Several children were seen crying in fear. A girl who appeared to be younger than 10, wearing a yellow dress, struggled to walk while carrying a toddler and some belongings.

The regime assault has 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 regime-controlled areas.

The air and ground assault, which escalated February 18, has seen the once sprawling territory at the edge of the capital shrink to three disconnected rebel-held islands. That has made it only a question of when — not if — the Russian-backed regime forces would recapture the entire region.

Also on Thursday, the media arm of Lebanon’s Hezbollah group and an opposition activist group said the second-largest rebel group in eastern Ghouta has declared a ceasefire in order to negotiate leaving the area.

The rebel group Failaq Al Rahman will abide by a ceasefire as of midnight Thursday, according to Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

There was no immediate comment from Failaq Al Rahman. Hezbollah is fighting alongside Al Assad’s forces.

The international medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres said the advancing regime forces had captured or destroyed 19 of the 20 hospitals the group was supporting only a week ago. Medical workers were fleeing the approaching front lines, it said.

Rebels now hold only one-fifth of the territory they controlled a month ago in eastern Ghouta, according to the Observatory. But that territory includes several densely populated residential zones, including Douma, the largest town in the enclave.

Iyad Abdul Aziz, a member of Douma’s Local Council, said a civilian committee representing the town is in talks with the Russians to reach a settlement. He said the committee has presented a proposal to the Russians for their forces to enter the town, while residents stay in place and restore state institutions there. Abdul Aziz said he did not have further details.

“Until now, there’s been no response from the Russians, but today we received a reply of rockets and bombs,” he said.

Commenting on Thursday’s evacuations from Harasta, Douma-based Syrian opposition activist Haitham Bakkar accused the regime of forcefully removing its opponents from some areas and replacing them with Al Assad supporters.

“This is a demographic change par excellence,” he said.

Rebels and the regime exchanged 18 prisoners ahead of the Harasta evacuation, according to pro-regime media.

The 13 men released by the rebels identified themselves to the media outside Harasta as soldiers and civilians attached to the regime’s army who were captured in the fighting for the town.

Monther Fares, a spokesman for the rebel faction Ahrar Al Sham, confirmed that his group’s fighters were preparing to depart. Fares said the rebels agreed to leave because of “civilian pressure” resulting from intense air strikes and “warplanes that do not leave the sky,” adding that Harasta residents have spent the last three months in shelters.

But the arrangement leaves other fighters for the Failaq Al Rahman group still inside. They regime is threatening to move on them if they do not also agree to depart.

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